Editorial: Virtual conferences in Second Life

This blog has been very quiet for a long time. There are several reasons for this, most of which are positive: I have not had many boring or negative results to write blog posts about, I have been busy writing manuscripts about the positive results instead, and I have moved to Copenhagen where I am busy starting my own research group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. There is also one more reason for the absence of blog posts from me: I have spent a lot of time experimenting with Second Life, and that is the topic of this blog post.

I first got interested in Second Life when I heard that Nature Publishing Group was setting up a virtual conference center called Elucian Islands. In the beginning I felt very alone on Elucian Islands. There was a good reason for that – I was alone most of the time. My view on Second Life was thus that it was pretty (see images below) but rather useless.

I obviously took a look at the SciFoo presentations (seen in the background of the image above) and the other scientific displays at Elucian Islands and elsewhere in Second Life. However, these mostly reinforced my negative view of Second Life being fairly useless, since almost everything I saw was already being served better by dedicated resources. For example, slide shows are much more conveniently viewed and shared in SlideShare than in Second Life, and 3D protein structures can be examined and analyzed better in programs such as PyMOL.

Over at FriendFeed, Jean-Claude Bradley fought a brave fight trying to convince me that Second Life is in fact useful for science. His key point was that Second Life is all about interacting with people, so I should try to go to some scientific events in Second Life. Sadly, there are still not many such events, and although they have changed my view on Second Life, they have also shown that there are many problems that remain to be solved.

The first virtual seminar I went to was “Cancer, Cell Cycle, and Check Points” organized by Digi S Lab. This was a perfect match since I work on cell-cycle regulation myself. The seminar consisted of two excellent presentations given by Letizia Cito from Sbarro Health Research Organization and Fayamdria Foley from the American Cancer Society.

Meeting on Cancer and Cell Cycle 1

Meeting on Cancer and Cell Cycle 2

Whereas the presentations were great, the seminar also illustrated several of the problems that need to be overcome before virtual conferences in Second Life are ready for prime time. When the first talk started, I could not see any of the slides. Restarting my Second Life client did not solve the problem, nor did a reboot of my computer. After giving up solving the problem, the entire region in which the seminar took place suddenly crashed causing speakers and participants to all be logged out. When it came back online after some minutes and everyone had found their way back, I could suddenly see the slides. Even then, however, they took so long to appear on my screen that the presenter had typically explained half of what was on a slide by the time I could see the slide. I see this as a major problem that must be solved before Second Life conferences can work properly – it must be possible to change slides without a noticeable delay.

The second event I went to was the “ESRC Complexity Research Seminar in Second Life” that took place at Elucian Islands. This seminar was very different from the one described above in that it was not a purely virtual seminar; instead it was a video feed from a real-world seminar that was being transmitted into Second Life. Think of it as a virtual overflow room – the image below shows the people who had gathered shortly before the event started.

ESRC Complexity Research Seminar

Sadly, this event was marred by technical problems. The sound stream was of such poor quality that the Second Life participants could barely understand a word of what the speakers were saying, and the video stream was of too low quality to be able to read their slides. I do not want to dwell on this but just note that good quality microphones and cameras are a prerequisite for streaming events into Second Life.

The third event I went to was the “Virtual Conference on Climate Change and CO2 Storage“, which again took place at Elucian Islands. This was again a mixed event taking place both in the real world and in Second Life. The presentations were excellent and important lessons had been learned from the previous events. The microphones worked perfectly this time, and the video feed had been abandoned in favor of showing a copy of the actual slides in Second Life, which greatly improved the readability.

In addition to these events, Elucian Islands now also runs regular events such as the weekly Nature Podcast event where a fairly large group of people gather to listen to the latest podcast shortly after it has been released (image from Joanna Scott’s blog).

Nature Podcast at Elucian Islands

Regular events are crucial in SL because they bring people together in the same place at the same time. The need for people to be online at the same time is in my view one of the major drawbacks of Second Life compared to other tools that researchers can use for social networking. In my view Second Life should thus not be seen as competing with tools like FriendFeed or Twitter, which you can read when you feel like it, but rather as virtual reality alternative to video conferences. I think that Nature Publishing Group is on the right track with this, and I hope that the few remaining technical hurdles will be overcome in the near future.

Full disclosure: I have been working with the staff from Nature Publishing Group trying to solve technical challenges on Elucian Islands.

26 thoughts on “Editorial: Virtual conferences in Second Life

  1. ldinstl

    I think it’s great that Nature is experimenting in the virtual world. I know that my good friend John2 Kepler has helped out there too, and Joanna spoke in his ACS conference sessions. Jean Claude is doing really nice work in chemistry.

    But there are many, many organizations who are doing conferences and events in Second Life, with a large and creatively talented audience beyond (but also including) scientists. Much progress has been made with many of the problems you mention. For instance, presenters can rez their slides on a small scripted prim prior to speaking so that they load quickly during the talk, and Chatbridge technology allows simultaneous chat in SL and on a webpage with a video stream.

    One of my goals is to bring science students and faculty into contact with the other vibrant cultures and communities in SL. Attending events like Metanomics (http://www.metanomics.net), Orange Island programs, and the business, NMC, or other Edu-sponsored events that occur several times a week is a good way to learn the latest on the tech front and to meet professionals from around the world.

    I can only touch on the many possibilities in this comment. I frequently have conflicting events in SL, and more that interest me than I can possibly attend. Please contact Chimera Cosmos in Second Life, friend Liz Dorland on Facebook, or follow ldinstl_chimera on twitter for more information.

    I have a Danish friend who is researching teaching and learning in SL, I collaborate in a space on the Australian Jokaydia sim (http://www.jokaydia.com), the NMC virtual conferences are fabulous, talks by famous authors…artists, social media experts, faculty, event planners, machinimatographers like Draxtor Depres who recently won an international award for the Virtual Gitmo video, international relations experts…limitless possibilities for students and the rest of us.

    I very much hope that others don’t miss out because they are convinced by your initial impressions!

    Regards, Chimera Cosmos (Liz Dorland in RL)

  2. rivenhomewood

    As your report makes clear, there are many challenges involved in using SecondLife effectively. I’m delighted to read that you and your colleagues at Elucian Islands are working to overcome some of them.

    By now you are probably aware that the problems which prevented you from reading the slides at your first conference are a normal part of life on SecondLife. They are part of the overall problem known as “lag” and arise whenever a large group of avatars gather together in one place. LindenLabs feels lag is due to excessive drain on the computer server because of the many avatars.

    In the excellent courses offered inworld by New Citizens Institute, the presenter often uses two slide displays, putting odd numbered slides on one and even numbered slides on the other. This allows time for each slide to rez before beginning that section of the course lecture.

  3. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Yes, I’m well aware that the problem with displaying slides quickly has to do with the general problem of “lag”. However, from the perspective of a participant who cares about the conference and not about Second Life, which would be the majority of scientists, this does not really matter. Whatever the reason, their experience would be that they could not see the slides immediately and hence had a hard time following the presentations.

    I have already participated in Metanomics events, but I don’t think that these are a fair comparison with scientific conferences. From what I have seen, Metanomics is more a kind of interviews where you need the video to see the person speaking. At science meetings you need to be able to easily read text, even when it is written with a fairly small point size. Unless you can do streaming video in at least 640×480 resolution then this will simply not deliver. The preloading of textures on hidden faces of prims seems a good solution. It would be interesting to try to preload an entire 100 slide presentation in this fashion.

    Concerning chat bridges, I agree that it is a very good idea. So far, however, my experience has been that most scientists at Second Life meetings have been very, very quiet on the chat. This is largely a cultural issue, but in at least one case I found myself unable to make any intelligent comments because technical issues hindered me in understanding the presentations.

    Even then, what worries me most is the high barrier to entry and the steep learning curve of Second Life. You have to realize that most people in the scientific community do not read blogs or use of RSS readers yet. The most common reason is “I don’t have time”. If you want them to invest the time it takes to get a Second Life account, install the client, and figure out how to do the most basic things (like navigating and talking to people) then you really want to make sure that they have a good experience. Otherwise, I’m afraid they will turn their back on Second Life and not give it a Second Chance.

  4. ldinstl

    Actually, pre-loading ALL the slides is what I meant. It’s on the venue and presenter to arrange that ahead of time. The prim can be small, and slides could all be ready to view when the presentation starts.

    I’m well aware of how scientists view such things, having been a college prof, and being married to one for 37 years. :-) What I’ve observed is the magic that happens when profs like Curious George from Cal Tech come into SL as skeptics, engage with the environment and residents with an open mind, and become converts.

    Changing “…the perspective of a participant who cares about the conference and not about Second Life, which would be the majority of scientists…” is exactly my goal. If all you do in SL is attend the odd seminar, you are missing the power and potential. It’s about collaboration and community, not about yet another presentation venue. Webinars can do that more efficiently. I’ve come to believe that it’s essential for we as scientists to engage more fully with the world and to help students to do the same.

    I’ve been asked to give a short talk and participate in a discussion at Kira Cafe. Have you been there? There is a world-wide physics community that meets regularly in SL to discuss the broader context of science. I taught college chemistry for 35 years, but now I’m interested in helping faculty to enter and acclimate to the virtual world.

    I don’t see a huge learning curve–I see an environment with powerful tools waiting to be used. It’s surely not that scientists are averse to learning difficult concepts. But what’s the point if not to go beyond making it easy to watch yet another talk? I spent my whole career interacting mainly with scientists. That was not such a great idea in retrospect. Look me up in-world sometime. Cheers!

  5. ldinstl

    I just noticed that one of the presentations you mentioned was by Fayandria Foley. She’s a friend of mine on Facebook. Are you aware that she also was the lead organizer of the huge Relay for Life event in Second Life last year? Fayandria would be a very good person for you to talk with about the broader world and amazing residents in SL.

  6. Speedmaster Bing

    First, please don’t try and juggle 100 slides around during a meeting, as this will slow things down too.

    The slow rezzing of textures is a technical decision Linden Lab have made. You can’t throw Megabytes (sometimes hundreds) of textures to every client at the same sim. So textues are send in several passes, where each pass adds to clearity of the texture.
    Same solution was used in the early days of internet, and is stil a part if GIF and JPG file specification.

    As for streaming movies, a MOV file in 320×240 (mobile phone screen) is rather good, blown op on at 10 meter screen, but you have to have a server that can stream to the number of people attending.
    I have seen solutions where you “offset” the movie stream on 4 sceens, like when you put 4 flatscreens next to each other in the real world, to get “one” big screen.

    Depending on your material, there are several ways to speed things up.
    I’m sure other people happily will share their experiences, if you ask around.

  7. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Honestly, I would love to be collaborating with other scientists in Second Life rather than just going to the odd seminar. I have so far spent three months searching for places where I could meet other scientists interested in research topics related to what I work on, but I have failed to find what I searched for. When I go to science-related sims, I find that I am usually the only person there, unless there is an event going on at that time. Maybe it is a difference between research fields – there seems to be much more happening related to physics and astronomy, but that is not what I work on. There also seems to be a community of educators, but I am primarily a researcher and not an educator. I did visit Kira Cafe a few times and there were some interesting people there, but again not anyone who could potentially be a scientific collaborator. Finally, most Second Life users are in the US, which means that most of the action might take place while I am sleeping.

  8. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Thanks for all the input, everyone. Just to make it clear: I really do want to see things work in Second Life – the post was just a report on what I have experience so far, and sadly it has been a mixed experience.

    I think the whole issue of slide shows being too slow is that Second Life is just not designed to do what we want to do. Using a separate high-resolution texture for each slide is a hack that results in much more data being transferred than the size of the actual slide show that the presenter made. I have been thinking along the lines of not having the presentation displayed on an in-world projector, but instead show it using a Flash-based viewer similar to SlideShare that could within the built-in web browser. All that is needed is a mechanism for synchronizing the slide changes, which should not be difficult to make.

    However, I am also questioning the advantage of using Second Life for this purpose. What is the advantage over having a slide show, live video streaming, and interactive chat within a browser window? To be a bit provocative, the latter solution has clear advantages, namely that people would not need to install any new software and that we would not have to make hacks to circumvent the limitations of said software ;-)

  9. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Thanks for pointing out Monolith – I did not know about it, but I have tried other similar solutions for visualizing molecules within Second Life. My short impression is that these could be interesting if there would be people gathering around a structure and discussing it, but if you are just one person looking at a structure then dedicated tools like PyMol are far superior.

  10. ldinstl

    Ah yes, Monolith could prove to be very interesting. I’ve had a couple of demos by the creator. Last week the professor/developer of Proteopedia (http://www.proteopedia.org/) gave a talk at Stony Brook, and Erich also showed Monolith in SL on screen at the RL seminar. (I was part of the avatar scenery in-world.) It’s quite fabulous compared to the smaller molecules that Hiro’s rezzer can do. The whole concept is just as you say Lars–to have a group of scientists and/or students viewing the molecules in collaboration. The speaker was skeptical at first, but ended up saying he would sign up for SL that day. :-)

  11. Speedmaster Bing

    Sorry I can’t point you to any European contacts direct, as I don’t even work in your field.
    best suggestion I can think of, is having a look at “European Educational Institutions in Second Life” found on RUC (Roskilde University) website:


    Originally found here:

  12. torridluna

    Regarding the unreliable slideshows: Back in 2007, I built 2 slideshows for The Trimedia World and for my personal use: Both just cache the next and the previous slide, for faster scrolling. That is enough and works great for smooth presentations.
    Nowadays the problem is solved anyway, because nobody uploads their presentation as single images anymore (thus saving their Linden $^^), but you simply prepare them on a website, and use the Media channel for that. I have implemented that in a presenation system for the Dresden Gallery (Second Interest), and it works witout any blurring.

  13. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Thanks for the info that caching just two images is enough. However, I have to disagree with you that nobody uploads presentations as single images today – so far this is what has been done by the organizers of every seminar I have participated in except one. And they were not all organized by the same people ;-) Also, if you use the media channel will that not reduce all your slides to a measly 320×240 pixel resolution?

  14. torridluna

    Hi Lars,

    When using the Media channel for rendering images from a website, these images are as sharp as a rendered HTML page in-world, which is enough for all slides I’ve seen so far.
    (N.B.: It’s also not nessecarily so, that the movies played over the Media channel have to have a small resolution (like the 320 by 240 px you mention): On ZKM we have played a 1024×240 MOV stream with 1fps as a slideshow (which allowed us to broadcast 4 smaller images at once).
    The common practice to reduce the movies in their resolution are just to keep the bandwidth down to a level that every viewe’s DSL line can handle, and to keep the outgoing bandwidth low, of course.)

    Here are 2 screenshots from within Second Life, one of your Website:
    And one with a screenshot of my browser, showing your website:

    Both load with a minimal delay, and without blurring, since they don’t use SL’s jpeg2k approximisation, or the asset server at all, but instead get rendered from the user’s own builtin mozilla engine, included in the Viewer.

    So much about “SL isn’t fit for scientific presentations.”. ;-)

    Torrid (http://primforge.com)

  15. Lars Juhl Jensen Post author

    Thanks Torrid – that does look really good! I think I will point the people from NPG in your direction. It is better that they and you talk directly to each other instead of my having to act as a relay.

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  17. torridluna

    Hi Lars, I’d be most happy if you bring us in contact. It seems I have a job from another university for a “grand unified” ^^ media player soon, maybe the scientific scene can contribute their requirements to that project.

  18. joannascott

    Thanks for putting us in touch, Lars – hi, Torrid, I’m Joanna and I work for Nature. I’d love to chat with you about a “grand unified” player and have sent you a message in SL. If it’s better or anyone else wants it, my email is j.scott@nature.com.

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