Saturday, July 31, 2010

Singing Avatar Blues: What was Virtual Value of MPI’s Hybrid Event?

Earlier this week I published an article about my anticipated experience as an Avatar at the MPI (Meeting Professionals International) WEC virtual conference center.  Admittedly, I was quite excited, and full of optimism, about this new twist to a hybrid event.  So now, the question is, did the experience live up to it’s expectations?  Is there real potential value to an event like this?  What were the learning lessons?

Tech Challenges Diminish Quality

First, the technical side of this experience was a significant challenge.  On Sunday, due to bandwidth issues, it was literally impossible to watch the majority of the webcast, as the stream continuously dropped.  For Tuesday’s version, the experience was better, although there were still some issues, particularly at the beginning of the session.  Technical Experience Grade:  C-

A Constructive View of the Attendee Experience

What value was generated for virtual attendees? I am struggling with this.  While there is the cool factor to a virtual world, I am not sure what value this experience delivered, if any, to attendees.  On both days I logged onto the conference center, conversed with a  few people, and then sat down on a virtual couch to watch the webcast.  During the actual sessions there did not seem to be a lot of interest, amongst the avatars present, to sustain a conversation.  Kind of pointless, if you ask me.

Put into perspective, I could have achieved comparable or greater value by accessing the webcast through MPI’s site directly, and then participate in the Twitter back channel conversation occurring via the hashtag “#WEC11”.

Voice Enabled, but Silent. Fusion Productions did offer a voice feature in the virtual area, which they asked everyone to mute during the webcast (understandably).  The funny (or not so funny) part is that hardly anyone used the voice component.  I personally tested it out  (quality was excellent) and had a couple of brief conversations with other avatars, including the Fusion Productions Manager, Julie Mckown.

Three Hours of Programming??? Seriously, this one really stumps me.  MPI, Fusion Productions, Assemblive and Clever Zebra went to all the time and expense of providing this Virtual venue, yet only offered two 90-minute “lecture-based” sessions with virtual access, over a four day period.   I realize this was an experiment, but I think a more strategic look at programming may have produced better results.

Where is the Attendee Interaction?

Attendee Engagement is the Name of the Game! I have been an active participant in other virtual worlds, namely Second Life, for several years.  In fact, as a musician, and DJ, I do virtual gigs at Second Life Night Clubs.  Second Life users love these experiences because they are engaging.

While a musician plays music live, people socialize in the back channel, much akin to a Twitter hashtag conversation.  Between songs, the musician chats with them.  That is a winning formula that sustains Second Life, as their live music scene is one of their greatest success stories.  Headline Entertainers such as U2 have performed very successfully in this virtual world.

Second Life Live Music Scene

The problem I see with the MPI virtual conference center scenario, is there was very little opportunity for attendee engagement. The environment was oddly cold, and sterile.  Some touches such as background music, or even an advance promotional commentary by someone, to get virtual attendees fired up, would have made a difference.

The two sessions featured were “talking head” style sessions.  So, there was very little opportunity for audience participation.  There was a “typed chat” interface, which could have generated conversation similar to a Twitter back channel, but for some reason it was used sparingly.

While access to the virtual world was offered 24/7 there was no compelling reason for attendees to return there.  There simply was not enough excitement to draw them back.

What Scenarios Are More Conducive to Virtual Environments?

I believe that a virtual conference center could be useful in certain contexts.  The solution begins with INTERACTION! Since realistically virtual attendees are not face2face, highly interactive sessions must be featured.  Here are some examples:

“Talk Show” Style Event — At the TS2 (Total Solutions Marketing) Show, which took place in Boston earlier in July, there was a wonderfully creative  hybrid event produced by The Expo Group, Digitell and Emilie Barta.  For more information on that event please read my article, or there is also another excellent recap by Emilie.

I could see some real potential to utilizing a virtual interface with this style of event as it was highly interactive.  It could even be structured such that the Interviewing Anchor (that was Emilie) could field questions on “voice” from the virtual audience, in addition to the face2face attendees.

Brainstorm Sessions — With the voice feature it is possible to have localized, or private chats.  So… the large group could be divided into small groups to focus on strategic issues, and have a lively “voice” conversation, to develop solutions.  Then the group could come back together to share those solutions with the entire group.  This could be bridged with a face2face audience utilizing a Twitter interface.

Open Space Sessions — In the three virtual conference areas there was a feature where attendees could upload a powerpoint or video presentation to the virtual screen.  So, theoretically time slots could be scheduled where virtual participants could design their own conference content, on the fly.  This could be quite engaging, and also could be connected to the face2face attendees via Twitter.

While MPI may not have succeeded in delivering a stellar hybrid  event, with their virtual conference center, they did provide an experience, for event professionals to learn from, and plan for the future.   To answer the question posed in this article’s title, the value of this event was in it’s learning lessons.  That’s a pretty good start!

Question:  In your mind’s eye, what do you see as being a potential way to leverage a virtual conference center experience to deliver unique value to your event(s)?  Please share your thoughts.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike McAllen July 31, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Thanks Mike for this update. I had discussed this a little with Sam Smith and Jon Trask the last few days, and we wondered how the virtual stream worked out. Virtual events are such the future of our industries fabric. Sadly, I think it is coming along quite slowly for some. I do think its not far off for more activity in virtual sessions, and the technology will catch up and be spot on.

I did attend some fantastic onsite sessions at WEC. One in particular was the digital blueprint session which was moderated by Tim Sanders. George P Johnson and Cisco leaders shared some of the amazing virtual things they have produced in the past year. Each shared a virtual blueprint of how they produce these as part of live events or stand alone virtual products.

This directly speaks to your post. One of the first things they centered on is objectives. The virtual elements should be a tool in these overall objectives. We will see how MPI follows up next year.

I do applaud MPI for trying this, all the social media, and technology they tried to provide ateendees. They seem to be trying to evolve with the changes we all are experiencing around us.

Thanks for the great post


Michael M McCurry CMP August 1, 2010 at 6:55 am

Hey Mike,

Thanks for weighing in and for the contributions to the discussion.

I’m glad to hear you found some significant value in some of the sessions you attended at WEC. Your comment about objectives playing a crucial role in crafting technology solutions is spot on.

Yes, MPI deserves credit for making the effort to try new things… that I agree. It really boils down to a well thought out strategy centered on the previously mentioned objectives… thats where the future work needs to be focused.

Thanks again for your comments!



Dave Lutz August 1, 2010 at 6:33 am

Mike, great summary and thoughts! Organizers like MPI, really need to lean heavily on their suppliers, in this case Fusion, to recommend the best solution to accomplish their goals. It sounds like Fusion has a cool solution for an immersive and engaging virtual event, but it’s not the best solution to recommend for virtually attending a couple general sessions. Effectiveness needs to trump the cool factor. Playing Monday morning quarterback, it sounds like they would have done just fine live streaming the general session coupled with Tweetchat.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 1, 2010 at 6:57 am

Morning Dave,

Love your comment that “effectiveness needs to trump the cool factor.”

I absolutely agree with you that MPI would have done just fine with live streaming combined with a hashtag conversation.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the next WEC.



James Parker August 1, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Thanks so much for posting this information. I wanted to share with you and your readers some very valuable information that is being published and written about regarding the future of Virtual immersive environments. As you know, Digitell has been running Hybrid Events in our VirtualU plartform for the past 2 years and the data that we are receiving from our clients and users support the data that is being published regarding the use of these technologies by corporate and researchers.
Virtual Immersive environments are proving to provide an end user with a much richer and stimulating experience, so much so, that the user truly feels like they have been transported to a new place. The research that has been published by leading researchers has shown that our brains are stimulated to a point that results in significantly greater retention and learning.
Much of this research has been done over the past 10 years and clearly the results are showing that this technology will soon revolutionize the way professionals are trained and conduct everyday business online. I highly recommend a book entitled “Learning in 3D” by Karl Kapp and Tony O’Driscoll.
My personal experience with our VirtualU plartform and the clients that we are presently working with confirms this data. Digitell is now utilizing this technology in several different fields including Museum replication and outreach, urban design and development, simulated training, and Hybrid and Virtual events. There is no doubt that the results are showing that the end users prefer to participate in an immersive environment and we are only at the beginning stages of these developments. Once this technology begins to make inroads into the mainstream training and development practices, companies worldwide will be turning their training into immersive applications.
This fact alone, is reason for organizations to begin to move to Virtual Immersive environments as a platform for their members to experience. We recently exhibited at the ASTD annual conference and the overwhelming dilemma companies are experiencing is the lack of their ability to “bring their people together”. The present 2D platforms that are being used, GoTomeeting, webex, etc. are only compounding that problem as their employees feel isolated and not part of a team. This is only one example of how a Virtual Immersive Environment can bring their teams together in one environment and truly, when you are in an immersive environment you feel like you are with the other people represented by avatars. This is not marketing hoopla, these feeling have been proven and I experience them everyday.
I was recently providing a tour to an Australian group and their executive made this comment… “Jim, even though you and I are half way around the world away from each other, I feel like I am right next to you in this environment”.
We recently streamed several Key sessions from the Specialty Library Association’s annual conference into an immersive environment and their survey results were just posted. 62% of attendees said that their experience was superior to any other 2D platform they had attended in. 42% said they were more likely to attend the live event next year.
Read all of the results here
At a recent 3D event for the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition these are some of the comments we received
• The virtual conference was excellent! I was not able to attend in person, but this is a fantastic alternative for those who cannot attend in person. The support staff was fabulous, and quickly rectified any problems that arose. Please continue to provide this virtual conference option!!!
• I loved this virtual experience and hope to attend in the future.
• The virtual conference was amazing. I may have missed out on the networking, and the good restaurants and shows of Vegas, but I focused more on the presentations, I was able to ask questions, and I did a lot of work between presentations.
Now, I will admit that these platforms may not be for every group, as they do need to understand that there will be additional tech issues, but if the platform that you are using has been developed for easy access and has been proven, then the results will be greater and there will be a core group of users that will absolutely love the experience and it is these people that will begin to develop a passion level needed to build an online community. Add this to the fact that if you are just starting out, where will your organization be in 5 years. I hardly think their members will be satisfied watching Flash. Not to mention, all of the other opportunities this technology can and will provide their members.
An attendee of the SLA virtual event wrote this to the executive director after attending their virtual event.

I have been dying to talk about the virtual aspect of the conference. I had a wonderful time in the virtual world meeting, chatting, dancing, joking, networking, and tweeting with the people from this region, the US, and abroad.
After it was all over—on some level—I felt as though I had actually attended the event (of course I had set my humidifier to high and wore beads the whole time…jk).
I am so proud to be a part of this organization.

When is the last time you saw these types of comments from a standard 2D event?

Finally, I would like to introduce your readers to Mark Jankowski. Mark has been running high level training courses in an Immersive environment for over 2 years and the results have also been similar. Read this blog from one of his participants.

Examples like this are being written about everyday and so I would suggest to organizations who are considering what platform to use for their next online event… “Dont be afraid of introducing your members to these technologies even if it takes additional effort. In the end, it will be well worth the effort.”
I commend MPI and hope that they will continue to explore the 3D Virtual Immersive environment in the future.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 2, 2010 at 7:54 am

James, thanks so much for all this valuable information.

I am very familiar with your virtual platform, as you know, and Digitell has a terrific product.

I, like you, see much potential to these platforms, however the major point of my blog post here is their use needs to be well thought out and aligned with event opportunities that have synergy with the technology.

Virtual technology does not work for every situation, as you well know, so the learning lesson is that it is not a one size fits all platform.

I appreciate your contribution to the discussion.



John Potterton August 1, 2010 at 9:13 pm

This talk is reminiscent of the time not too long ago when I was operating a conference center and our clients wanted to access their home office via VPN. Problem at the time was that company security had firewalls in place which prevented remote access. This caused some frustration for our clients who wanted the same experience they got at their home office with the remote experience at a conference center. It was the period of time when we were moving from dialup connections (who can forget the sound when that connection was being made) to the connections we are using today.

Kudos to MPI for moving in the right direction. With each passing month it will get easier and more seamless.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 2, 2010 at 7:57 am

Hi John,

My, oh my, have we come a long way or what…

As you point out, we are just getting our collective “sea legs” with this virtual stuff and I am sure a year or two from now it will make a lot more sense to a lot more people.

I agree that MPI deserves credit for trying new things and with the lessons they are learning applied good things will hopefully happen.

Thanks for contributing to the discussion.



Jeff Hurt August 2, 2010 at 11:38 am


Great insights, good post and provocative comments. All worth considering. I think the question of when a meeting should be virtual, hybird and live is worth a lot of discussion and dialogue.

I think some organizations might want to try new initiatives like this Virtual Environment as a pilot for smaller groups first before taking it to their larger audience. If large associations implemented a Virtual Environment for a chapter or regional meeting first, then they could work out all the nuances and challenges. Attendees are also more willing to be part of a pilot project and offer constructive criticism. With a regional or chapter pilot, the organizers could then invite attendees from the regional event to serve as mentors and leaders for the larger event.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:07 am

Hi Jeff,

The pilot program… what a great concept! Creates a manageable environment to beta test your ideas and tweaking them before rolling them out to your full customer base.

Love the added value of leveraging the experience of your regional attendees as mentors once the virtual environment is fully deployed.

Thanks for contributing to the conversation Jeff!


Julie McKown August 2, 2010 at 11:51 am

Hi, Mike:

Just wanted to chime in and express our thanks again for your support and participation as we launched this “beta” test of the Virtual WEC.

It was fun and educational for all of us to explore ways to interact and network both with each other and with some of the attendees. I even got to participate in the delivery of an on-site workshop in Vancouver without leaving my desk in Webster, NY!

Our main objective for this event was to introduce the technology to people, to test it out with the MPI crowd, and begin to explore the ways in which “alternate reality” can add real value. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of some amazing possibilities.

I remember when Twitter first started becoming popular. People would ask, “But what’s it FOR? Where’s the VALUE?” In the years that have followed, the answers to those questions have been almost as diverse as the people asking.

Indeed, people have found unique and valuable applications for whatever tools are available at any given time, in any given environment. The Fusion/CleverZebra/MPI team is proud and excited to be among those who are pioneering innovative ways to use virtual environments in the meetings industry. We are already working on ways to expand the schedule, the roster of activities, and the adoption rate for 2011 in Orlando. We hope we’ll see more of you there, too!

It was great to meet you “in world,” and again – thanks for all of your support.

By the way, the environment remains open for those who are interested in exploring. Just visit

Julie McKown
Communication Strategist
Fusion Productions


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:12 am


It was great to meet you as well.

There are enormous possibilities to the virtual platform, and yes, as you point out, we are just scratching the surface of them.

I can remember the first time I logged into Twitter saying what the he.. is this? Now being on Twitter is a natural part of my daily routine… so much so that I would feel out of place if it I skipped a day. :)

We are living in a huge learning lab, with technology and what an exciting time to be testing things out.

Thanks for contributing Julie, and for all of your efforts with the WEC virtual event.



James Parker August 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Great comments. I believe a great way for organizations to begin is to start a “virtual chapter”, just like their state chapters. The organization should then solicit a volunteer “Virtual Chapter President” like they do for their state chapters and this person is usually very passionate about their profession and looking for ways to contribute for the good of the organization.
This president then solicits a small team around them that is all passionate about technology and virtual applications and this becomes the organizations core group to seek further movement in this area of opportunity.
They might start by running a couple of small virtual events as you have suggested by exploring opportunities in areas such as fund raising, exhibitor relationship building, education, collaboration, Special Interest Group meetings and more.
Each year, the Virtual Chapter votes in a new president and the building of an immersive online community has begun.
I would love to hear the thoughts of the group as to the viability of these “beginning” baby steps.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:13 am


Some interesting ideas… would love to hear other people weigh in.

Thanks for adding to the conversation.



Cameron Toth August 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Hello Mike,

Great post. My addition to the conversation is that if you are going to do a virtual environment make entering it simple and effective. One confusing element for me was the “Conference”, “Networking”, and “Workshop” doors that you face even before you see the virtual settings. I would have preferred one entry point and than portals within for workshop, general session, etc.

I look forward to trying the virtual experience again with richer content and more objective based interactions. Playing is fun but these conferences are about business. If we are conducting business and it happens to be fun well that is a great story to tell afterward.

I was very happy with the pathable community for #EC10 in NYC and MPI’s Meet Different in Cancun. The one feature that was not available that was cool in the “cleverzebra” virtual world was the voice to voice feature. To me seeing a Twitter or Pathable Avatar/Headshot is better than a “Barbie” or “Ken” Avatar. I like reality in our Hybrid sessions as that reinforces the value of the virtual session. It becomes less like gaming and more like collaborating on a successful project. We have seen this in Twitter and continue to have success through communities such as #eventprofs.

Again, Great Post! Thank you.
Cameron Toth
Toth Communications
Valhalla, NY – Westchester


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:16 am

Great thoughts Cameron, regarding the access point to the CleverZebra Virtual platform.

As with you, to me functionality trumps the cool factor. I do see potential to use of avatars and virtual platforms, but this technology is not for everybody, or for every situation.

In the end there needs to be tangible value provided to attendees, or any technology will not sustain itself.

Thanks for joining and adding to the conversation.



Midori Connolly August 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Is it just me, or did these lonely little avatars need our favorite virtual hostess, Ms. Emilie Barta?

And, I would daresay, the most common mistake is happening as we speak. I’m sure Fusion and Zebra invested many hours of work into creating this cool little virtual world, promoting it and then feeding with content during the event.
Now what?

Keep the community alive! Now is the time to get MPI members engaged and keep the education and connections flowing :)
Just say yes to the age-old rule of BDA:
Before During After.
– AVGirl


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:18 am

Hey Midori, you are so right about our good friend Emilie. She would have rocked the house out.

Yes, keeping the community alive is perhaps the greatest challenge. I have a feeling that won’t happen with this particular (MPI WEC) virtual platform, as there was honestly not much life with it at any point, in spite of all the efforts by MPI, Fusion and Clever Zebra.

Long live BDA !!!!

Thanks for contributing to this terrific discussion.



Cameron August 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

Great comment Midori! Spot on!


Michael Doyle August 2, 2010 at 7:30 pm

A very good discussion Mike and lots of great comments. No matter if we are talking 3D, 2D, event portal, or a WebEx experience, it’s clear we are STILL (no matter what some may say) in the very early stages of adding digital experiences (of all types) to meetings and events. What a great time to be in this industry!

Mike, I like your ideas and would like to get more of them and try and incorporate them into the next Virtual Edge Summit in January in Vegas and Virtually. If you’d like to put together a group to work on designing, managing and measuring attendee engagement from a virtual and face-to-face experience we’d love to have you. I know Jeff and Dave have some thoughts about this as well. Right now we have plans for an ongoing ESPN–like studio to stream before and after sessions and plan to have interview with attendees, speakers and vendors with demos etc. and we are talking about getting virtual attendees to join via skype video. Wide open to new ideas though and as we are measuring everything from an engagement POV, we should be able generate some real data as well.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 3, 2010 at 4:20 am

Hi Michael,

I could not agree with you more, it is a great time to be in the industry.

Love all your ideas for the virtual edge summit and look forward to a conversation with you about how I can help.

Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.



Miguel Arias August 4, 2010 at 3:41 am

Hi Michael, cool post and also very insightful comments from many others.

I agree with you that the technnical issues are still a very annoying drawback for many virtual event platforms, but I really think that there are enough solutions out there to overcome these problems nowadays. Many times it is more a question of educating the market and the virtual attendees and exhibitors!.

Interaction is the KEY issue here, virtual event vendors need to provide as many interaction possibilities as possible, and make it in an intuitive and usable way.

I am not such a big fan of avatar-based virtual environments for mainstream virtual trade shows or events. I believe that “pseudo-3D” web-alike environemnts with strong interaction tools and engaging visuals and videos are delivering great results for all kind of virtual fairs.

We are integrating skype, together with our own Webinar and written chat capabilities in the new version of our platform, since we think that enabling one-to-one video interviews will be almost equivalent to face to face meetings.

The market is finally expanding in Europe and South America, and we are very happy to be in this innovative industry.

Hope to meet you in person in the next Virtual Edge Summit,



Michael M McCurry CMP August 4, 2010 at 8:25 am


Thanks for adding to the conversation…

Do you have an example that you could point to of the “pseudo-3D” environment?

I am very curious about this and would love to see what you are talking about. I hope to meet you as well at the next virtual edge summit.



Miguel Arias August 5, 2010 at 9:56 am

Hi Michael,

here you have some examples of pseudo-3D environments, which mean that the 3D is not rendered real time in the browser. Instead of that, the user has the feeling of experiencing a true 3D environment thanks to post-productions techniques, video travelling, etc.

Take care,


Anne Thornley-Brown, President, Executive Oasis International @executiveoasis August 7, 2010 at 8:01 pm

I also attende the Sunday session of the virtual WEC10. In fact, Mike’s avatar was the one to the right of mine on the next couch. Definitely there were some techinical glitches on Sunday but I was able to monitor a good chunk of the sessions and I did find the content valuable. I had hope to engage in a discussion about the content with the other virtual attendees afterwards. Unfortunately, most disappeared. I did walk up to a couple of them and introduce myself but I was met with a stoney silence. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they were struggling with the technology, perhaps they were away from the computer but they had left their avatar in the room. It’s too bad. It was a missed opportunity.

When Mike logged back in, we had a chance to connect. We sat and conversed (voice) for a good 20 – 30 minutes. It was really great to get caught up as we had spent quite a bit of time interacting at PCMAEC in Montreal a few months earlier.

For me that was the value add, the chance to discuss, engage and interact with the other virtual participants.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it on Tuesday. I think sessions like this do have value and virtual attendees will probably be more inclined to engage once they get the hang of the technology and become more comfortable


Michael M McCurry CMP August 14, 2010 at 10:02 am

Hi Anne,

Thanks for your comments, and glad to hear you found value in your virtual experience at WEC. It was nice to chat with you.

I agree with your comment about the virtual conference area having value …. its just to really maximize the value, there needs to be more frequent interaction and interesting things for people to do. I am sure over time these virtual platforms will evolve into something more than they currently are.

I look forward to watching them grow.

Thanks again for contributing to the discussion.



Emilie Barta August 8, 2010 at 2:41 pm

First of all, thank you so much for your compliments Mike and Midori…they are greatly appreciated!

The bottom line with any 2D or 3D platform is that is does not matter how cool it is or how many features it has…if no one knows how to use it. A meeting planner would never have thousands of people walk into a covention center with no instruction as to where to go or what to do, so why do we expect virtual attendees to go at it alone? It makes even less sense when we factor in that virtual environments are still relatively new, and every virtual platform looks different.

Another area of concern for 2D and 3D environments is that people are sitting at their computer “watching” the event. Oftentimes they are alone. So they have less committment to the virtual event than someone sitting in an audience at a face-to-face event…and it is much easier for them to walk away from it than someone who has to climb over other audience members to leave the room.

What do these 2 problems have in common? A lack of engagement! A virtual event must find a way…or several ways…to teach the virtual audience how to use the platform, and then constantly engage the virtual audience during the event to keep their interest.


Michael M McCurry CMP August 14, 2010 at 10:05 am

Hi Emilie,

There is a lot of wisdom in your words.

For virtual events, there does need to be a lot of support available for the virtual attendee to help them get their “sea legs” with the event.

Even more important is that someone needs to get the party rolling… meaning someone needs to get the conversation started and help sustain it. That is a component that was missing from the WEC Virtual area.

Thanks so much for adding to the conversation Emilie!



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