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The virtual conference

How to hold low-cost, long-distance get-togethers without leaving Columbia

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Second Life presentation excerpt courtesy of Anthony Connolly
  • Published: April 1, 2009
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Mizzou doctoral student Anthony Connolly presents a lecture on divine poetics, excerpted here. Connolly used a University of Queensland Second Life island to take part in a conference in Australia last summer, saving thousands of dollars in travel costs. Though not equipped for virtual reality, Mizzou offers low-cost video and Web conferencing on campus.  A transcript is available.

For Anthony Connolly, visiting Australia last August was an out-of-body experience.

Giving a presentation at the University of Queensland’s Alternative Expressions of the Numinous Conference, the MU creative-nonfiction doctoral student appeared in Second Life avatar form — gesticulating with newly mastered virtual limbs, deftly fielding audience questions, illustrating abstract mystical ideas with a big orb of light — all from Columbia, Mo., on the other side of the world.

No passport required

Connolly isn’t much of a techie. At the time he was invited to the conference, he knew next to nothing about Second Life’s digital, virtual world and hadn’t so much as played a video game since Space Invaders was en vogue. Unable to come up with $2,500-plus in funding to go Down Under in the flesh, though, he took a detour to UQ’s Second Life-generated Studies in Religion Island created by the conference’s organizer, UQ Professor Helen Farley. Four other international presenters joined him there, appearing to conference-goers on a giant screen in Queensland.

Trip prep was a bit more complicated than packing a suitcase. Connolly had to conjure up not only an intelligent and visually exciting presentation but also a digital person to give it.

“You’re like a baby at first,” Connolly says of creating a Second Life avatar. “You can’t speak. You can’t move. It costs money to acquire things like real-looking skin, eyeglasses, clothes… I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? I’m bald. I’ll be presenting naked.’ For academics, you have to present yourself as serious, reliable and accurate — and that’s really difficult when you’re an avatar and you can’t dress yourself.”

Connolly’s panic subsided after he’d hired a “reverse mentor,” a young man in Oregon who walked him through Second Life and helped him “rez up” in time for the big event — fully dressed, bespectacled and respectable though still, just for fun, bald. The time investment was steep, but it paid off.

Second Life avatar: $350. The chance to present at an international academic conference: Priceless.

Conference on a shoestring

While Connolly saved big bucks on his non-trip, construction of the host island came with a sizable price tag; in 2007 UQ received a grant of $30,000 (about $20,500 USD) to build the multi-attraction destination. With universities’ budgets shrinking, such undertakings have become impractical. But other low-cost options for high-tech meetings abound.

Terry Robb, spokesman for MU’s Division of Information Technology, points out that professional-development conferences often are broadcast online as Webcasts or interactive Webinars. 

“I’m using the heck out of them right now because of the travel restrictions, and I think others are getting the same idea,” Robb says. “We’re trying to save money, so there’s got to be other ways — such as attending Webinars — to get our training.”

Mizzou faculty, staff and students generally can host or attend virtual meetings through two means: video conferencing and audio/Web conferencing.

Video killed the jet set

In May, Mizzou will introduce a video conferencing system to rival the typical sci-fi starship boardroom. Thanks in part to a $1 million donation by UM System President Gary Forsee, Ellis Library will be equipped with Cisco TelePresence. Using the new technology, conference hosts sit across a table from three high-definition video screens on which their guests are broadcast, life size and in real time, with CD-quality audio. You might not be able to shake hands with your colleagues or pour them a cup of coffee, but this futuristic option will be the closest thing to teleportation available at Mizzou.

“People who are somewhere else in the world look like they’re sitting right there at the table with you,” Robb says. “It is pretty slick, I’ve got to admit.”

Plans are in place to link all four UM System campuses with TelePresence.

Currently, standard-definition video conferencing is available in the Academic Support Center and in the Bond Life Sciences Center, which also holds a facility with high-definition screens, speaker phones, Power Point capabilities and seating for 12. Because rooms are limited, equipment must be set up by a technician and demand is on the rise, advance planning is required. Book online.

Video conferencing: $20 per hour. After-hours tech support: $75 per hour. Seeing your colleagues’ smiling (or frowning) faces: Highly valuable.

Talk is cheap

For more flexible conferencing without the face-to-face interaction, DoIT offers Cisco’s MeetingPlace. Using the do-it-yourself technology, MU faculty and staff can host get-togethers with little more than a speaker phone and a computer. Any MU host can sign up for an account, download some software, and schedule a meeting using Microsoft Outlook.

MeetingPlace audio and Web components can be used separately or together. To talk, participants call a toll-free or local Columbia phone number at a designated time from anywhere in the world and connect with all other meeting-goers. To make Power Point presentations, brainstorm on a white board or share documents from their own computers, attendees log into the meeting online. Each person is assigned a color to help keep track of who’s talking, presenting or marking up a chart. Conferences can be recorded and reviewed later.

Cisco’s quickie video explains how it works.

Audio: $10 per hour for blocks of 10 participants plus toll-free number charges. Web: $15 per hour for blocks of 10 participants. Recording: Free.

The future

Connolly acknowledges that programs such as Second Life aren’t appropriate for all interactions, but he foresees educational applications such as historic reenactments and science education expanding.

“The opportunity to do abstract things in a virtual reality can’t be overstated,” he says. “You can do things that are physically impossible in real life.”

Robb, meanwhile, envisions more exciting meetings.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we can use holographic conferencing,” he says.

Beam us up.

Read more in:  Science & TechnologyBeyond CampusSpecial Features & SeriesEducation

Reader feedback

  • I saw the nice virtual conference story you wrote for Mizzou Wire and wanted to make you aware of MU Extension’s TeleCenter Network, which has been providing videoconferencing services for meetings and classes across the state since the mid-1990s. The individual off-campus centers, located in 10 communities, also organize computer training and other courses. A number of MU Extension’s county offices also are equipped for videoconferencing. As a large organization with employees working in every county, we make it an imperative to keep travel costs down!

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012