Following Cath’s comment on virtual conferencing to my post on curbing expenditures, I have given this subject some more thought, asking myself and colleagues the following question: given the escalating costs of conference organization and attendance, and given the all-important role that conferences and workshops play in the scientific enterprise, is there a satisfactory way of utilizing modern technology to recreate the conference experience virtually, to any meaningful degree ? Obviously, savings would be enormous — but would a “virtual conference” be almost as good as the real thing ? Could it possibly even offer some advantages over the traditional conference ?
Well, the clear-cut answer would have to be, in my opinion, no — or at least not yet, given the still fairly rudimentary state of communication technology. And there really seems to be (thankfully !) something irreplaceable about lively human interaction, crucial to the main reasons for attending a conference, namely learning and networking.
However, that is not to say that experimenting with virtual conferences (VC) would not be worthwhile. In fact, I think that VCs could have a respectable place in the realm of scientific communication, regardless of whether they end up replacing actual conferences or not.
But what would a VC consist of ? What would it look like ?
Video conferencing, of course, already exists, but the typical number of participants is small, of the order of a handful at the most. It seems like it would be truly unwieldy to run effectively something involving tens or hundreds of participants located at as many different places, in principle each delivering a presentation, listening to everyone else’s, and asking questions at the end of each. Bandwidth limitations, as well as of general coordination problems, make this an unlikely scenario, in my opinion at least for a decade more.
In her comment, Cath mentions Second Life (SL) as a possible venue to host something that could resemble an actual meeting, and I know that some have experimented with it. The advantage over the above-mentioned model is that each attendee has an avatar, and all avatars can be formally at the same virtual place at one time. This can be visually comforting but little more than that, in actuality, for the same problems affecting video conferencing (fair and effective coordination of many remote speakers, and bandwidth) are still present, if anything to an even greater degree, given the absence of any actual visual contact among participants .
It is my view that the first attempts at VC should be gradual, with emphasis on achieving “virtually” what cannot easily be done in the “real world”, rather than attempting to duplicate as closely as possible a “real” conference. During an initial “trial” period, aimed primarily at rendering the community comfortable with the overall notion of an online conference, use should be made primarily of simple devices that already exist, albeit integrated in a different, possibly novel way.
So, here is how I would set up a VC on a scientific subject:
1) The organizer (or organizing committee) of a topical VC would identify a number of invited speakers, and then call for submission of contributed presentations. Each presentation (both the contributed as well as the invited) would consist physically of a file, including a series of slides with voice commentary. Each presentation would have to be contained within a given time allotment. Indeed, this is very much the same talk to which one would listen in actuality . All of these files would be uploaded to a web site, and made permanently available to conference registered participants (or, to anyone, depending on the choice of the organizers).
2) The Questions and Answers session following a presentation is undoubtedly one of the most interesting parts of a conference. I think that equally interesting exchanges could take place in a VC, based on the format well known to all of us bloggers, namely comments (conceivably moderated by a chairman, who could be either one of the organizers or someone appointed by them). Attendees could either comment on the content of a presentation, or ask the presenter a question, which the presenter would be given some time to answer. Obviously, the spontaneity of a real life conference would be lost, to the detriment of the “entertaining” aspect but conceivably to the benefit of precision and scientific rigor .
Presumably, comments would be accepted during a specific time window, and then the conference would be considered “closed” and archived, the purpose being to provide a permanent record of the “state of knowledge” on that topic at that time.
The above, very basic scheme, does not include anything that is fundamentally new . It is nowadays quite common, for relatively small conferences or workshops, to place online slides of talks given by invited speakers, for example. Including the audio commentary is relatively straightforward with most modern presentation software. Several prominent physics departments already put online video streams of colloquia, and of course, scientific discussion has been carried out on blogs for quite a while. Except for a few minor details (perhaps stricter moderation of comments, time limit for submission of comments, registration etc.), it is really nothing but putting together existing parts.
This would be, of course, in order to get something started. Naturally, as it becomes increasingly adopted and utilized, and with technical advances which we shall undoubtedly witness, one may expect to see novel formats of online conferencing to appear.
For bureaucratic purposes, as well as for documenting one’s work, obviously a paper invited or contributed to a VC of this type could easily be ascribed the same valence as one presented at a regular conference. Naturally, however, things like the number of hits and the comments received would allow one to make a more precise and cogent assessment of how well-received the work was, unlike at a regular conference.
Any comments ?
 Obviously, I am thinking of using voice. I am not even considering anything interactive based on keyboard typing, which is slow, inaccurate and tiresome.
 There seems no obvious reason of imposing a given format on the files, as long as the presentation can be played without any problem by a remote user provided with standard, reasonably current computing hardware. Also, unlike in an actual conference, there seems no reason to impose different time limits on invited versus contributed talks.
 An obvious advantage is that technical questions requiring, for example, that actual numbers, or equations be used, can be more easily formulated in writing than by voice.
 It is possible, and indeed likely, that something similar or identical has in fact already been implemented, and I am not aware of it. I thank in advance those who will give me pointers to anything relevant that already exists.