Inaugural Scuba.Digital imperfect, but concept holds promise
The virtual dive show, held on 23-26 October, was put together with all the right intentions and much effort. It got a lot right but also had some misses, and the format and platform need more work.
During the event, I sat in on several great presentations, and it was a valuable learning experience setting up, preparing and taking part in the exhibit. Being the first dive event of this size and scope, some teething problems were to be expected, not just on the part of the organisers but the many presenters and visitors who frequently grappled with getting their tech (their webcams, microphones, speakers, etc) to work. While the still raging pandemic has made Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms more commonplace and familiar concepts, this event made it clear that we are still in the early days of what could quite possibly become a norm in how we conduct meetings, collaborate with colleagues or take part in conferences.
Expo or conference?
As a dive expo, which Scuba.Digital’s concept thought to emulate, it did not quite work out in several key areas. But as a conference, it worked reasonably well, if one thought of it as a virtual cineplex, with presentations going on upon various stages (one main stage and a number of parallel sessions). Presentations were listed on a schedule, so you could wander from one to another. However, with presentations being somewhat spread out across 24 time zones, a number of interesting presentations inevitably ended up being scheduled awkwardly for part of the global audience. To compensate, being on Central European Time, I ended up doing one of my own presentations at a late evening hour in order to conduct it at a time that was more reasonable for our American audience.
The part that did not work so well were the virtual booths, making it difficult to find and connect with people. Firstly, there was too little latitude to actually design a booth and drape it with the look and information that one would have at a real show, or on a website. It did not have to be as detailed or advanced as Second Life, but some options would surely have come in handy.
Secondly, almost nobody popped inside booths to have a conversation. In our booth, we had just one visitor who engaged with us, and just about two dozen visitors stating an interest during the whole event. That was rather dismal. Other exhibitors with whom I spoke, related the same experience. I also went to visit other booths and either there was no one there, or I could not establish video or audio connection with those manning the booth.
This component needs to be rethought. That said, one must consider that the total attendance at this inaugural edition left a lot to be desired. It could be an order of magnitude higher and should be for upcoming installations.
Finding people, or knowing who else was attending, was not easy either. I managed to connect with a few familiar names, but that is not the point of taking part in an event, physical or virtual. The idea, for me anyway, is to meet and connect with new people. But one normally does not jump out at random names, like in some blindfolded speed-dating event. At real shows, people wear badges stating their affiliation, and you generally know where to find them, say, in their booths. What I would have liked to have seen, for example, was a simulation of a real physical space, say a map, which could be navigated, perhaps populated with avatars moving about.
In case this critique comes across as being a tad on the pointy side, let me also be perfectly clear that it is meant constructively and forward-looking, and that I whole-heartedly applaud the organisers for sticking their necks out, giving it a try, and quite evidently putting in a gargantuan effort. It is the trailblazers who do the hardest work, and the ones discovering the stumbling blocks.
I am also perfectly fine with all the imperfections, because acquiring initial practice or experience has to take place sometime somewhere. This was a good opportunity for participants to cut their teeth, and I always had a clear sense during this event that there was a wide tolerance for people’s various struggles or awkwardness with getting to grips with this form of online presence.
Once the kinks are ironed out, virtual expos could quite possibly become potent platforms and certainly pose attractive alternatives to the physical events, or they might play alongside or even on top of physical shows in a dual format. In any case, the concept is not quite there yet. What is still not mature is the technical platform, but I am sure significant strides will be made in the foreseeable future, and I look forward to seeing how far this concept can go.