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Mixing Real and Virtual Conferencing: Lessons Learned
Ajay Surendernath Geetika Sharma Ralph Schroeder Basant Kumar Pandey
Tata Consultancy Tata Consultancy University of Oxford Tata Consultancy
Services Ltd. Services Ltd. Services Ltd.
This paper describes a conference which linked several remote sites via a virtual environment so that the virtual audience could follow the presentations and interact with real presenters. The aim was to assess the feasibility of linking distributed virtual audiences to an ongoing conference event. Various types of data about the conference were gathered, such as participant observations, interviews and a survey of the audience, and analyzed. The main finding is that a number of low tech improvements could be made that could greatly enhance this type of virtual conferencing. A related finding is that the visual fidelity of the environment and of the avatars plays a lesser role than other factors such as audio quality. Given the paucity of research on how virtual conferencing can substitute for travel, plus the urgency of this topic for environmental reasons, a number of suggestions are made for the implementation of remote virtual conference participation.
Index Terms: Collaborative virtual environments, real and virtual conferences, virtual environments.
In this paper, we describe our experience of a technical conference which involved the participation of both a real as well as virtual audience from a dozen different locations. We present various types of data, including participant observation, informal interviews, and a survey of the remote virtual audience participants.
2 PREVIOUS RESEARCH AND MOTIVATION
A conference shares some of the features of collaborative virtual
environments (CVEs), like those used in education. There are a
number of studies of CVEs , though these have not specifically
focused on remote conference participation. Conferences also
share some features of distributed work meetings, which have
been far less studied . Finally, there are similarities with virtual
exhibitions . Conferences using CVEs are nevertheless
different from these three uses of CVEs in that they involve
speakers and audiences and bring people together for the
exchange of ideas. Yet virtual conferences have rarely been
investigated or evaluated .
The virtual/real conference that we describe here is novel in at
least five ways: one is the mix of the virtual and real audience.
The second is that the conference was carried out in a CVE which
was restricted to researchers from one organization, rather than in
an open-to-all environment like Second Life. Third, the
conference was sustained over the course of two and a half days.
Fourth, the conference brought together 12 locations where
participants were co-located but from where they could take part
in a single virtual lecture theatre with avatars. Fifth, the virtual
world was developed specifically for work inside the company.
3 DESCRIPTION OF THE SYSTEM AND EVENT
The virtual environment (VE) that was used was VirtualOffice
(VO), a system designed to enable workplace collaboration .
The system was tested extensively beforehand. It has been shown
that videoconferencing needs a lot of testing, especially when
there are a number of remote locations involved .
The study was carried out in the course of a two and a half day
conference. The format was that of a typical research conference:
keynotes, presentations, two tracks for parallel presentations
during part of the conference (only one of these tracks
implemented the virtual audience participation). The conference
was attended by approximately 80 researchers at the real
conference location and approximately 55 researchers in 12
remote locations, though we obtained data only from 37
participants from 8 locations in India. To manage the VE, there
were two operators at the physical location (one primarily to
handle the camera view, the other to handle audio and questions
from virtual audience). At each remote location, a conference room was set up to broadcast the proceedings of the physical conference with one operator. The VO window was projected in the conference room showing a live video feed from the physical conference, the presentation document of the speaker and a graphical view of the
Figure 1 (a) View of real auditorium (b) View seen by remote audience
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
IEEE Virtual Reality 20124-8 March, Orange County, CA, USA978-1-4673-1246-2/12/$31.00 2012 IEEE
virtual auditorium on a single projection screen. Multiple cameras were pre-configured in VO show views of the VE from different vantage points.
We begin with observations based on informal interviews with the
real audience and on participant observation at the real
Camera View of the Virtual Lecture Theatre: During the
conference, various views of the virtual lecture theatre, such as
that of the audience, the presentation screen and of avatars
moving around were displayed to both the real and virtual
audiences. The system would automatically focus on the avatar
asking a question whenever a remote attendee would do so. For
the real audience, the balance between a static virtual lecture
theatre and switching the view was important.
Virtual Speaker: There were look-alike or generic avatars of the
speaker in the virtual lecture theatre and the virtual audience.
There were a few occasions when the video stream became
unavailable due to low bandwidth at either the streaming out or
the receiving location. In such cases, having the speakers avatar
visible helped preserve a sense of continuity for the virtual
Recognition of questions from the virtual audience and turn-
taking: Speakers prioritized recognizing questions from the real
audience by a ratio of perhaps ten real to one avatar question.
Since avatars had their hands raised for many more questions, this
means that many questions from the virtual audience were not
answered. It was very difficult for the speaker to simultaneously
scan the virtual audience in addition to the scanning the real
audience to identify the raised hands of avatars. Turn-taking also
relates to following up on questions with a second comment or
question, and this proved almost impossible for the virtual
audience - whereas it is easy for the real audience. We now turn to the results of a survey which was completed by remote conference participants at eight remote locations with 37 responses to 15 multiple choice and open-ended questions. Most of the remote participants (29) filled out the survey in the first session of the virtual conference they attended. 8 filled out the survey on returning to the virtual conference for another session. When asked if they had used video conferencing tools such as WebEx  before, 30 said they had and 4 had not (3 did not answer). We also asked whether they preferred WebEx or the virtual world and why, and there were 12 roughly evenly divided responses (some pointed to advantages and disadvantages of both): those that preferred the virtual world mentioned the greater multimodality, independent control over presentation documents, interactivity and intuitiveness. The drawbacks of the virtual world were poor audio and video. Among those who preferred WebEx-type videoconferencing, the reasons included greater reliability, and better video and audio quality. A striking feature of the survey responses is how mixed and nuanced the answers were. This could indicate a validation of the usefulness of the questions, but more importantly suggests that remote participants recognized the benefits as well as the drawbacks of virtual conference participation. From other open ended questions asked, it was perceived that over half the participants found the audio to be of poor quality.
5 DISCUSSION, IMPLICATIONS FOR DESIGN AND FUTURE WORK
Having learned a number of lessons from this conference, we now
describe a number of ways in which the problems that occurred
during the event could be overcome, and how future events of this
type could be socio-technically managed to enhance the
experience - both in terms of the effectiveness of the task and the
enjoyment of the social interaction.
Ways to Enhance Future Virtual Conferences: One feature
which could easily be implemented in future conference events is
allowing people to move between different parallel track
presentations. As long as all of them are captured on video and the
presentations are made available in different virtual lecture
theatres, avatars could freely move between them. Another useful
feature at mixed real/virtual conferences could be to allow real
audience members to go up to the screen and speak to avatars
whom they recognize during breaks.
Communication and Interaction Problems and Potential
Solutions: Apart from the technical problems, there are a number
of socio-technical management solutions. A cr