Social conferencing in a virtual world: the innovative approach of the virtual world conference

Schmeil, Andreas; Hasler, Béatrice S.; de Freitas, Sara; Peachey, Anna and Nehmzow, Claus (2011). Social conferencing in a virtual world: the innovative approach of the virtual world conference. In: Proceedings of the Researching Leanring in Immersive Virtual Enviornments Conference, pp. 154–163.

URL: http://www.open.ac.uk/about/documents/relive11-con...

Abstract

Over the last five years, virtual world platforms have proliferated, from ActiveWorlds to Second Life to OpenSim to Olive, a range of platforms that allow large numbers of users to coalesce around virtual structures over the web are being used widely. As a result of distributed groups of researchers working on shared research problems, cost savings due to high costs of petrol and travelling and natural international incidents such as the volcano eruption in Iceland researchers and industrialists are looking for other methods for coming together. In particular, the costs of international travel are high and many multinational companies are looking for ways to reduce costs, at the same time the pressures on the environment are extreme due to climate change so efforts to reduce carbon emissions are similarly pointing to a future world with reduced travel and increasing expense for air travel.

For these reasons, virtual world conferencing is becoming a popular solution, it has the immersion to make users feel engaged and part of the crowd, but has the ease of access and low costs that allows participants to take part from their offices or homes or on the move without missing out on the socializing aspects of the conference, and still attaining the main objective of bringing together a distributed group of participants from around the world. However, one of the major issues with using virtual worlds to support collaboration lies in the limits of the physical world itself in the shape of time zones; while users within a continent can relatively easily overcome the time zone barriers, when working between several continents 6-8 hours differences can be difficult to reconcile.

The authors organized a purely virtual world conference to bring together top international researchers in the field of virtual world research and development from academia and industry, and at the same time use the opportunity to test out the theory that virtual world conferences can be as engaging and productive as physically held conferences, whilst reducing the costs and allowing the participation of the delegates in three different time zones to reflect the challenges of timings between the three main regions of the world: East, Central and West. This paper outlines the successes and challenges of adopting this approach. It includes analyses of questionnaires that were filled out by attendees, in an attempt to confirm or disprove the central hypothesis that virtual world conferences can support engaging and effective conferencing. The paper closes by presenting novel ideas for future conferences resulting from the attendees’ feedback and by discussing particular enhancements for the following edition of the conference.

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