Status Report

AbGradCon 2009: A Glimpse into Mixed-Reality Meetings of the Future

By SpaceRef Editor
August 1, 2009
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AbGradCon 2009: A Glimpse into Mixed-Reality Meetings of the Future

Weary of catching planes, burning up fossil fuels, and spending lots of time and money to attend meetings? Take heart! Virtual worlds are shaping up as possible venues for online meetings–and astrobiology graduate students are leading the way in exploring their potential.

On July 17-18, 2009, early-career astrobiologists met at the University of Washington in Seattle for the 6th annual Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon), and simultaneously in the virtual world Second Life. Students presented talks that were streamed live into Second Life and participated in a real-world and virtual world “mixed reality” poster session. Social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were also used for sharing information before, during and after the conference.

Because talks and the poster session were taking place at the same time in Seattle and Second Life, the organizers set up visual “portals” to allow participants in both worlds to see each other. In Second Life, live video and audio from the Seattle meeting room presentations were streamed into an amphitheatre (shown in the image above) and during the poster session video was shown overhead on a “JumboTron.”

Image: Avatars in a virtual amphitheatre watch and listen to a graduate student presentation streamed from AbGradCon into Second Life.

In a similar way, in Seattle images from Second Life were projected on a large screen during the poster session and in the meeting rooms where talks were held. The figures below show the portals in both locations.

While no one expects virtual world meetings to ever replace in-person gatherings, the AbGradCon experiment offered a glimpse of what might be possible in the years to come. A survey of participants who attended via Second Life indicates that it was a welcome alternative for those who could not travel to Seattle–though most would have preferred to be there in person.

Image: Portals between worlds: The photo on the left shows students in Seattle pointing to Second Life. The image on the right is a snapshot taken in Second Life, showing avatars and the overhead JumboTron with with real time video of students in Seattle.

There are significant obstacles to overcome before virtual world meetings become commonplace, chief among them are the need for integrated audio communication amongst avatars and lower learning curves for entering and navigating virtual spaces. Even with current limitations, AbGradCon drew participants from Portugal, Greece, Australia, Uruguay and the US who otherwise would not have been able to experience the meeting at all. The experiment brought a new level of openness to the conference and resulted in many lessons learned and ideas for future meetings.

So, you may not want to retire that roller bag just yet, but odds are that at some point in the not-too-distant future you will find yourself seated at a conference center in a virtual world. Astrobiology students will be there to greet you when you arrive.

Image: Mixed-reality poster session at AbGradCon 2009: On the left, avatars study astrobiology science posters and interact with each other in Second Life. On the right, students in Seattle discuss their work at the in-person poster session.

Related links:

Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference: Everyone Gets to Go!

AbGradCon 2009 website

SpaceRef staff editor.