(Tele)Present at the Future

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

Attending a virtual conference—and what it tells us about the future of scientific communication.

Image courtesy of sndrv

A week ago, as I was packing for a much-anticipated trip to the UK to speak at the Science Online London 2009 conference, I found something that made my heart sink: my passport. It was expired. There was no way out. I would miss four days at one of the world’s premier science communication gatherings. I’d miss meeting top scientists and communicators I had previously only known via the internet, and miss experiencing the sights and sounds of one of the world’s great cities.

I emailed my heartfelt apologies to the conference organizers and my co-presenters, and they quickly responded with a counteroffer. Could I make my presentation via their conference space in the virtual world of Second Life? I said I’d give it a try.

A visit to the plasticine-perfect world of Second Life can be daunting for the uninitiated. Avatars—3D personal representations of users visible to all the other inhabitants of Second Life—are typically extremely physically attractive and clad in revealing clothing. Mine was no exception: Though I tried to plump it up to match my real-life gut, my best effort at an honest representation of myself was still undeniably Adonis-like. I ended up with something like a 22-year-old version of myself on steroids.

Beyond being able to control and enhance your personal appearance, there are even greater luxuries to be had attending a real-life conference via a virtual world. While I and about two dozen other virtual attendees sat in our pristine amphitheater waiting for the conference to start, we could watch the real people rushing back and forth on a video feed from London, complaining that there wasn’t any breakfast. (The eggs and toast I had prepared for myself were delicious.) But did we actually have it better than the attendees who were physically present? Was it better than the “real” thing?

Not quite.

The technology wasn’t seamless. Most talks were plagued by both audio and video problems, and, most notably, many missing presentation slides. But when the technology did work, it was sometimes possible to forget that those of us watching remotely in Second Life weren’t really “there.” We could chat with each other in our own dialog box, or we could post “tweets” about the proceedings in real time on Twitter, where our pithy observations were projected on the big screen at the Royal Society auditorium, along with those of all the other attendees (here’s an archive of all the tweets from the conference). At one point, I even found myself tweeting that “I’m finding #solo09 to be a very rich experience in 2nd life, despite technical glitches. When it works, it may be better than RL [real life].”

But Karen James, the director for science of The HMS Beagle Project, who attended in Second Life from her home in London due to an illness, made a rather cutting observation about the experience: Didn’t the whole “virtual conference” amount to an old-fashioned video feed and chat room?

Holly Miller, the project leader of the Biology of Aging Portal at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and an editor of Second Life magazine Rez Libris, disagrees: “I have attended many web seminars, even ones with audio chat, and they are not as engaging for me. For me, the experience of going to a conference in Second Life has many of the benefits of a real-life conference and many fewer costs in terms of travel, inconvenience, expense, etc.”

I have to agree with Miller. Even though we knew our colleagues’ perfectly toned avatars weren’t real, having a visual representation of them definitely made the experience more personal, and the connections and insights we made there were more lasting than if we had been in a bare-bones environment of just a streaming video feed.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the final speaker at the conference, the self-professed “nomadic scientist,” journalist, and science fiction author John Gilbey, suggested that in 50 years “virtual reality in some form will be ubiquitous in society across the globe.” More people, many of them not associated with any university or research institute, will be able to actively participate in and share science. Location, Gilbey told us, will be irrelevant, and the virtual world will be seamlessly integrated with the real world.

Gilbey was careful to point out that this was “speculation, not prediction.” His road map for science communication in particular, and technology in general, only looked outward some five to seven years. After that, Gilbey wasn’t sure any meaningful predictions could be made. What does seem certain, though, is that in this new virtual world, a crash of the world’s computer infrastructure would be even more catastrophic than it would be now. Additionally, the questions of what is “real” and who can be trusted would perhaps become even more difficult to answer. As one “real” attendee, technology consultant Brian Condon, pointed out to me on Twitter, “I was actually ‘there’ and you weren’t, and I’m not convinced that the Second Life people were ‘there’ either.”

Distinguishing “real” science from myths and propaganda has always been a problem, whether we’re located in the real world or a virtual one. Printed journals have fallen victims to fraudulent research, and online journals have risen to heights of prestige that might have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Perhaps this is why one of the most contentious sessions at the conference might initially have seemed to be the most benign: “Real-time statistics in science,” during which participants discussed how we measure the impact of a scientific paper and the ideas it contains. Victor Henning of Mendeley.com and Virginia Barbour, editor of PLoS Medicine, argued that the current “gold standard” of journal rating systems, the “impact factor,” was outdated because it lumped all the articles in a journal together. Not all articles are equal, and we now have the tools to measure the impact of individual articles. Henning said that Mendeley’s software can even measure the amount of time its thousands of users spend reading a given article under the assumption that they spend more time on the more important ones. These measurements can even be made in real time to give us a sense of how “important” a given piece of research is from moment to moment.

But such questions aren’t only a matter of statistics. After all, readers could be looking at articles for reasons that have nothing to do with the “truth” or “importance” of the science they present.  We need a variety of methods to measure impact, both objective and subjective. In my own presentation, I pointed out that the outside blog-based expert commentary can be another way to measure a research paper’s impact. As more scientists join the discussion in the blogosphere, they’ll increasingly be able to make their own personal mark on the questions of “what is real?” and “what is true?”

Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org. He also blogs at Cognitive Daily. Each week, he writes about emerging trends in research from across the blogosphere.

Originally published August 26, 2009

Tags communication research technology

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