Producing a Seminar in Simultaneous Physical and Virtual Spaces

The presentation of seminars, speeches and lectures in virtual environments is not uncommon today. Many universities are investing in virtual worlds for teaching and learning. But in attending many presentations I have as often been disappointed as I have been inspired. Designing the seminar in the virtual space to ensure an experience for the presenter and the audience that leaves them feeling rewarded, rather than wondering why it was not just streamed over the net as a video, is not simple. Recognizing the affordances of the particular virtual world medium is a key element in designing the seminar around what it is that the presenter wants to convey. In this post I will recount some of the ideas and problems that were met when a group of researchers, artists and technicians worked together on presenting a single seminar in simultaneous physical and virtual space.

On Tuesday 20th April a seminar was held in both HUMlab and in the virtual online world of Second Life. The seminar had the title “The Human Inside of You’: Avatars and Posthumanism” (streamed video of the HUMlab seminar), and was presented by postdoctoral fellow Jenna Ng. We had been talking about running a single seminar in both a physical and virtual environment for quiet a while in the lab. We had done some experiments with live video streams in SL, and I had even hosted a seminar by Angela A. Thomas, presented from SL in the physical HUMlab to a live audience. But what Jenna had in mind was different, and it began with the subject of the seminar.

The idea, as stated in Jenna’s seminar abstract, that “the online avatar presents a digital embodiment: a derivative of the body not extended from but enmeshed with data and code, contained in the digital while still remaining profoundly sensorial” lends itself to a presentation in a virtual space. However, the content of the seminar also called for demonstrations using the virtual world. In this sense the SL space was not just a vehicle or conduit for the images, words and audio of the seminar, it was also an object of study within it. Jenna decided to make SL her demonstrative model for the concepts and ideas she was presenting in the seminar. With this in mind the seminar in-world was not to be an exercise in streaming media over the net, nor was it to be a replication of the seminar in HUMlab.

The seminar in SL needed to reflect and embody the questions and argument raised by Jenna’s presentation. The avatar as an embodied agent and a sensual identity in the virtual space was the focus for much of our preparation. The differences between how a seminar is performed in a Real Life (RL) setting, which is architectural, and observes particular hierarchies to do with the genres of the space (fire codes, academic modes of behaviour, crowd limits, seating etc.), and its single media channel (speaker with slides etc.), which includes an audience defined according to the single media channel of the space (i.e. speech), can be compared with a seminar in a virtual space such as SL. In SL flight, back-channel chat (Instant Messaging – IM – and general chat), downloads and web links are presented in ‘mid air’, and it becomes possible to combine the web stream with the in-world seminar along with a continual question and answer session throughout the entire session . The multiple channels of a virtual world presentation and the ability to communicate, indeed to ‘meet’ other members of the audience while the seminar is going on, is an important attribute of the virtual seminar space. The sensation of shared space was the objective of the seminar experience.

Early in our planning we decided to abandon the idea of video streaming the RL seminar into the SL space. The time lag between the video stream (audio and images) and the actions of the presenting avatar (slides), make the use of streaming video problematic. Instead this was to be a stand-alone presentation, which was to be coordinated with the RL seminar through the streaming of Jenna’s voice. I have seen seminar presentations in SL that consist of nothing but an avatar standing along on a stage, not even moving, while the audio of the presenter and audience reactions (laughter at visual humour, questions off-mic that we in-world cannot hear) from some distant seminar stream through the avatar’s gaping mouth. Witnessing such a spectacle is boring. We began planning how this seminar was going to look.

We set up two screens, first inside the large space of the Lindellhallen on HUMlab’s first SL Island. One screen could link to static web pages and give the URL links in the chat window. The larger of the two screens held JPEG copies of PowerPoint sides. Clicking on the URL screen brought up web pages and clicking on the model computer next to the PowerPoint screen changed the slides. The backdrop to the seminar was to be the beach, with palm trees, swirling waves and golden sand. It was necessary to turn off the sound of the waves. The contrasts to the HUMlab seminar space and the Pacific island motif of SL are many. Such a contrast lends itself to an immersive engagement with the virtual space.

Jenna produced a separate set of PowerPoint slides for the SL presentation. Contrasts of color are more important for slides shown in SL. Large text and plain images that do not have too much shadowing or gradients are better in SL. For some good tips on how to construct a PowerPoint slide presentation in SL see this page. Jenna was using four URLs in her presentation. The screen upon which they were to be shown only allowed one URL at a time. Each URL has to be pasted into the edit box for the object. It became impossible for Jenna to perform all the functions for running the slides, URLs and speech simultaneously in both SL and RL.

A team of researchers, artists and technicians from HUMlab was assembled to help out with the production of the seminar. Postdoc fellow Lisa Swanstrom was the moderator in SL for the seminar. As moderator Lisa’s avatar Robot Evans handed out a welcome notecard to seminar guests in SL that included instructions for questions and the seminar and some basic rules. Robot took questions and moderated the chat in-world. Carl-Erik (”Calle”) Engqvist was responsible for changing the slides in SL, which he did by logging in to SL in HUMlab and keeping track of a prepared script and coordinated the changes in RL as Jenna spoke.

Scott Svatos changed slides for Jenna while she was operating her avatar in SL and and continued to speak through the progression of images both in HUMlab and in SL. I pasted in the URLs for the second screen in SL, as I was the owner of the object in SL and was the only person who could do so. Each of these actors in the seminar was coordinated with a script produced by Jenna that was distributed prior to the date of the presentation. In this sense there were three people working with the avatar Nicky Varnish as she presented in SL.

The entire presentation of “The Human Inside of You’: Avatars and Posthumanism” was an orchestrated performance. Timing, coordination and team work were important factors in bringing the seminar to both the RL and SL audiences. To make the use of virtual spaces in the presentation of seminars and similar events worthwhile, it is necessary to design the virtual component of the seminar from its most basic elements. Careful attention to trouble shooting prior to the event is recommended. Imagine what can go wrong and try to create a design that avoids it. As well, make it fun!

(Thanks to Jon Svensson for the photos)

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