The virtual dive show, held on 23-26 October, was put together with all the right intentions and with much effort. It got much right but also had misses, and the format and platform need more work.
During the event I sat into several great presentations, and it was a valuable learning experience setting up, preparing and taking part in the exhibit. Being the first dive event, of this size and scope, some teething problems were to be expected not just on the part of the organisers but the many presenters and visitors who frequently grappled with getting their tech – their webcams, microphones, speakers, etc – to work.
While the still raging pandemic has made Zoom and other video conferencing platforms more commonplace and familiar concepts this event made it clear that we are still in the early days of what could, quite possibly, become a norm for how we conduct meetings, collaborate with colleagues or take part in conferences.
Expo or conference?
As a dive expo, which the concept thought to emulate, it didn’t quite work out on several key areas. As a conference, however, it worked reasonably well. If you think of it as a virtual cineplex with presentations going on various stages, one main stage and a number of parallel sessions, you get the idea. Presentations were listed on a schedule so you could wander from on to another. Albeit with presentations being somewhat spread across all 24 time zones a number of interesting presentations inevitably ended up being scheduled awkwardly for part of the global audience.
To compensate, being on Central European Time, I ended up doing one of my own presentations at a late evening hour in order to conduct it at a time that was more reasonable for our American audience.
The parts that didn’t work well were the virtual booths, and finding and connecting with people. There was too little latitude to actually design a booth and drape it with the looks and information that you would have at real show, or on a website. It doesn’t have to be as detailed or advanced as Second Life, bit some options would be surely come in handy. Almost nobody popped inside booths to have a conversation; We had one (!) visitor who engaged us, and just about two dozen visitors stating an interest during the whole event. That was rather dismal.
Other exhibitors, who I spoke to, related the same experience. I also went to visit other booths and either there were no one there, or I could not establish video or audio connection with those manning the booth. This component needs to be rethought. That said, it needs to be taken into consideration that the attendance at this inaugural edition left a lot to be desired: It could be an order of magnitude higher, and should be for upcoming installations.
Sessions worked reasonably well. - screenshot from the closing session with a discussion on how it all went.
Finding people or knowing who else were attending wasn’t easy either. I managed to connect with a few familiar names but that is not the point of taking part of an event, physical or virtual; The idea, for me anyway, is to meet and connect with new people. But you don’t jump out at random names, like some blindfolded speed-dating. At real shows people wear badges stating their affiliation, and you generally know where to find them, say in their booths. What I would have like to have seen, for example, was a simulation of a real physical space, say a map, which could be navigated, perhaps populated with avatars moving about.
In case this critique comes across as being a tad on the pointy side let me also be perfectly clear that It is meant constructively and forward-looking, and that I whole-heartedly applause the organisers for sticking their necks out, giving it a try and, quite evidently, putting in a gargantuan effort. It is the trailblazers who does the hardest work.
I am also perfectly fine with all the imperfections because acquiring initial practice or experience has to take place sometime and somewhere. This was a good opportunity for participants to cut their teeth and I always had a clear sense during this event that there was a wide tolerance for people’s various struggles or awkwardness with getting to grips with this form of online presence.
Once the kinks are ironed out, virtual expos could quite possibly become potent platforms and certainly pose attractive alternatives to the physical events, or play alongside — or even on top of them in a dual format, if you’ll permit me a flight of fancy. In any case, the concept is not quite there yet. What is still not mature is the technical platform but I am sure significant strides will be made in the foreseeable future and I look forward to see how far this concept can go.