Conferences and Trade Shows in Inhabited Virtual Worlds
A Case Study of AVATARS98
Bruce Damer & Stuart Gold
P.O. Box 66866
Jan de Bruin & Dirk-Jan de Bruin
Tilburg University/Virtual World Consortium
P.O. Box 90153
5000 LE Tilburg
View of attendees standing at ‘Ground Zero’
at the Avatars98 conference and trade show
A paper presented by Jan and Dirk-Jan de Bruin as keynote speakers at the ACM Multimedia Conference (Oct 30-Nov 5, 1999), Conferences and Trade Shows in Inhabited Virtual Worlds A Case Study of AVATARS98, by Jan and Dirk-Jan de Bruin, Bruce Damer, and Stuart Gold. The paper is in a shorter version, as: Bruce Damer, Stuart Gold, Jan de Bruin & Dirk-Jan de Bruin, Large-Scale Events and Inhabited Virtual Worlds: Avatars98, published in: Sandra Schruijer, Multi-organizational partnerships and cooperative strategy, Dutch University Press, 1999: pp. 289-294 (ISBN 90-361-9820-8).
There is a movement of dedicated Internet users who want to colonize Cyberspace and transform it into a galaxy of interconnected Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVW). Contact Consortium (CCON) is one of the spearheads of that movement, exploring, for instance, the possibilities of organizing large-scale events in IVW-Cyberspace. One such large-scale event is its annual conference. One objective of this conference is to generate, maintain, and expand the commitment of its adherents. Because they are spread all over the world, and CCON also wanted to test the possibilities of IVWs at that time, its last large-scale event, a conference and trade show called Avatars98 (AV98), was completely held in Cyberspace in 1998. This paper starts with a quick look at the origins of IVWs. The focus is then on the manifold types of social meetings and activities that are already possible in IVW and the rapid expansion of its social functions. New uses - and the technologies associated with it – are constantly being implemented in IVW. One new social phenomenon is in this paper described more in depth, i.e., the trade show, which was a part of AV98. This development toward organizing large-scale commercial events in IVW-Cyberspace is a sign that IVWs are increasingly emancipating themselves from their origins in the realms of pastime and chatting. We applaud this development because social technologies from all social realms should be incorporated in IVWs. That makes Inhabited Virtual Worlds more real ‘worlds’ in the philosophical (cosmological) sense.
Keywords: Inhabited, social, Avatars or multi-users Virtual Worlds, virtual meetings, virtual conferences, virtual trade show.
1. IMAGINARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE IVW MOVEMENT
The landscape of organizational life is rapidly changing. Our information society gives virtual or imaginary organizations (Hedberg et al., 1997: 14) a tremendous opportunity for growth. Imaginary organizations utilize an inspiring vision, information technology, alliances, and other types of networks to initiate and sustain a boundary-transcending activity. They are mainly based on integrative forces such as trust, synergy, and information technology. Contact Consortium (CCON) is such an imaginary organization that is one of the spearheads in the movement to colonize Cyberspace and transform it into a galaxy of interconnected Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVW).
Virtual organizations need large-scale events to reinforce and maintain the inspiring vision, necessary for its boundary-transcending activities. Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVW) on the Internet are a new medium for launching such events. It is important to take the meaning of the concept of ‘world’ to heart. This concept, so much discussed in philosophy, implies an all-encompassing context in which the totality of human activities and experiences is possible (Düsing, 1986). Sociologists use the concept of ‘society’ more or less in the same way. CCON works in toward the ideal of transforming IVW into real worlds or societies. It works in that direction by organizing several types of large-scale social events in IVW. In 1998, CCON organized a conference and a trade show entirely in a universe of interconnected Virtual Worlds.
This growing galaxy of interconnected IVWs is a new social reality. In point 2, we give a short overview of the history of IVWs as a new medium. We pay attention to the different social contexts that were important in shaping them and could become even more important in the future. In our opinion, one of the central developmental influences that will move virtual spaces as such toward really Inhabited Virtual Worlds is the convergence and merging of the various forms of ICT in different social contexts. In point 3, we give a general decription of the central elements of a well-structured, large-scale social event in IVWs, using as our point of reference CCON's experience with AV98. The organization of large-scale events, difficult as it is, is a necessary stepping stone toward the situation in which IVW function on a permanent basis with all the institutions associated with it. Large-scale events in IVW are the laboratory for new institutions in IVWs. Point 4 focus more in depth on the way IVW can be used for marketing purposes. The 'developmental construct' of going from traditional trade shows to trade shows in IVW is tentatively sketched. We consider the organization of conferences (conventions) and trade shows in IVW to be the logical conclusion of a series of steps. In point 5, we summarize our experiences derived from AV98 on this particular type of virtual (mass) meeting in IVW and enumerate the lessons we learned. In point 6, we speculate on the future of IVWs.
2. A SHORT HISTORY OF INHABITED VIRTUAL WORLDS
The technological roots of IVW lie in the text-based multi-user environments of the 1970s and ’80s. In the ’90s this continued on the World Wide Web. The next development was the merging of text-based chat channels with a visual interface in which users were represented as ‘Avatars’. By using Avatars, one can feel the emotion of being ‘in world’ without having to bother about complicated – and expensive – VRequipment. For its graphics, the development of 3D-rendering engines, originally used for gaming application, was important. Online IVWs could spread over the Internet because they could run effectively on a large range of consumer computing platforms at modem speeds. There is now a growing literature on IVWs (Damer, 1998, 1999; Powers, 1997, Wilcox, 1998).
At this moment, all kinds of IVWs can be observed on the Internet. There are, for instance, the multimillion, multi-user worlds built for gaming by companies. Many IVWs are built for research purposes. Universities and other knowledge centers were quick to observe the possibilities of IVWs for educational purposes. And we should not forget the home brew IVWs, erected by dedicated private persons from all over the world. Having a lot of these IVWs is important because new uses for IVWs can be invented. If we see a new social invention spread from one IVW to others by imitation, the process of spontaneous institutionalization, as sociologists would call it, manifests itself.
The rise of e-commerce and digital marketing techniques, such as virtual trade shows, is another new opportunity that can serve as a testing ground for IVWs. In a world in which globalization is supposedly a major trend, organizations will increasingly be adopting the characteristics of virtual or imaginary organizations. Its boundary–transcending activities can be of different kinds. First of all, there is the growing use of computer-moderated collaborative work, done by Virtual Teams recruited from a network of organizations. In the second place, there is the category of boundary-transcending activities of a virtual organization with its (potential) customers and clients. Both types of activities can be done using various technologies. Electronic mail and chat room technologies are still the most frequently used. The trend is, however, towards rich multimedia digital conferencing on the Internet. Various prototypes are being produced at this very moment. The intention is to ‘marry the user-friendliness and pervasiveness of Web-based multimedia browser interfaces with on-line interaction and collaboration, using text, graphics, and voice communications.’ (Bisdikian et al., 1998: 282). However, this approach is still about interfaces; users don't feel like they're in a place. This feeling is of paramount importance in IVW. But we must also stress that the (architectural) attention given the graphical component which creates a ‘place’ must not obscure the important fact that, in the end, IVWs are all about social interactions and the bandwidth of human experience.
The medium IVW is, however, still in its infancy. At the July 1998 Avatar conference, consensus emerged that it was too early to know how the medium would ultimately be used and that Avatar-Cyberspace should therefore continue to evolve for its own sake and not to serve possibly inappropriate applications. Each of the aforementioned realms created a different ‘context of discovery’ for the further development of IVW. It is our belief that putting IVW to the test of applying them to different types of social events will speed up developments. The focus of attention in relation to IVWs will gradually shift away from the technological problems of the interface to the study of social technologies we need to serve up in IVWs different types of social events and - in the end - really full-fledged societies.
3. AVATARS98: A LARGE-SCALE EVENT INSIDE INHABITED VIRTUAL WORLDS
3.1 Event and technology platform
CCON (www.ccon.org) hosted AV98, the world's first large-scale social event totally online inside Cyberspace, on November 21 1998. AV98 was produced for CC by DigitalSpace Corporation (www.digitalspace.com).
A number of Virtual World platforms, such as Active Worlds, Blaxxun, Traveler, WorldsAway and Roomancer, and several webcast technologies were used. In the Active Worlds platform the AV98 world, a one-kilometer square space in which a conference hall was constructed, was built as the main focus. This world was designed to be usable by attendees on low-end computers on minimal net connections. The world was populated by specially designed Avatars, animated 3D models of users. It can still be visited by using the browser from www.activeworlds.com and selecting the AV98 world.
In relation to the concept of ‘world’, it is important to stress that AV98 was certainly a large-scale event with over 4000 attendees represented as ‘Avatars’. It also encompassed a broad range of types of virtual meetings.
3.2 The diversity of IVWs
The famous sociologist Durkheim called ‘social reality’ a ‘reality in its own’. Cyberspace should also be granted a distinct ontological status If we are speaking about IVWs, the obvious approach is to start by designing IVWs as a kind of simulation - and imitation - of social life. In later – and more complex - points of view, we should more and more give meaning to its own and distinct status.
Even though still in infancy, they can support several types of social interaction: collaborative work, learning processes, gaming and so on. IVWs can have small meeting spaces, but can also handle mass and large-scale social events and meetings with thousands of attendees from all over the Earth.
The diversity of AV can be demonstrated by enumerating the types of meeting spaces that the conference hall featured: a) a landing zone for new attendees; b) an awards area; c) 40 participating locations all over the world, some of which were connected by using streaming webcasts; d) a conference with six ‘speaker pods’ for parallel tracks in virtual ‘breakout rooms’; e) an art gallery; and f) also a trade show of 48 exhibits for participating companies and organizations.
In point 4, we shall go into more detail about the phenomenon of exhibits, particularly trade shows.
3.3 The typical elements of an IVW that is tuned to diversity and suited for large-scale virtual meetings
Let us briefly go over some characteristic elements of IVWs, such as the use of Avatars, the diversity of types of meeting spaces, public spaces and crowd management, the importance of having extra events to create the feeling of a total experience in IVWs, and finally, the all important role of a facilitating and coordinating team for the event. We touch lightly on the types of ICTtechnologies that were used at AV98 to guarantee an adequate functional performance in all those areas. We also, but only tentatively, glance at the differences between IVWs and other types of virtual and real-life meetings.
Central to the concept of IVW are Avatars, the visual embodiment of people in Cyberspace. By using Avatars, you can go beyond simple virtual meetings in which only (spoken) text and documents are exchanged. Avatars can, increasingly so, also embody such important aspects of human social interaction as gestures, proximity to the group, and emotion. This enables the building and maintenance of the trust we spoke about before. A conversation between people as Avatars in an IVW comes closer to the feeling of a face-to-face conversation than a conversation which is only the exchange of text by e-mail.
A second important characteristic of IVWs is the possibility to construct various types of virtual meeting spaces. For the design of these types of meeting spaces, we can use different generative metaphors. The meeting space can be small, being functionally equivalent with 'rooms' in physical space. Electronic meeting rooms (EMR) are also not one of a kind. IVWs can be the meeting space for the private auditorium, where ‘one-to-many’ presentations are given to usually closed audiences with the assistance of bot-driven slide shows or audio. IVW can also cope with EMRs, where ‘a two-way interaction’ exists with one or more speakers and responding audiences in a distributed environment. This can be done by web links, live video and audio streaming and backchannel chat for questions and answers. Communication in the conference tracks that was carried by text out during AV98 was instantly logged for the conference proceeding.
The third element is the use of public spaces and the management of crowd flow and the keeping of social order in them, particularly if we design large-scale events in IVW. That IVWs have meeting spaces that are functionally equivalent to ‘public spaces’, as social scientists would call them, makes us realize once more that the concept of ‘world’ goes far beyond the concept of ‘room’. Therefore we should also use generative metaphors other than that of a room. One of the functions such public spaces render is to give a crowd the possibility to find its way to more specific events. Crowd management in public spaces is very important in all large event spaces, such as conferences with multiple tracks, exhibitions, and theme parks. An eye-catching difference with physical reality is that, in IVWs, visitors can instantaneously ‘teleport’ or ‘warp’ themselves from one location to another. Central in AV98 was a tall 3D billboard of events with times and meetings. We return to this topic in point 4.
A fourth element of events in IVWs that promotes the feeling of total immersion in a world is achieved by adding extra elements (side events) to large-scale events. For instance, AV98 included an art gallery permitting the public to submit 2D artworks or photographic images for display. There was also a ‘webcasting wall’ to display live camera views of a number of participating real-world locations or news broadcasts. In general, mediacasts can provide streams of video and audio from real-world locations directly onto surfaces in the virtual world or onto parallel web pages and generate an encompassing context for the (large-scale) event.
And last but not least, every virtual meeting will have some physical team locations coordinating the action in that world. The proper definition of roles, clearly posted information about schedule, group dynamics, and a culture of respect and quality hosting, handling fatigue after hours at the keyboard, and providing interesting visuals by webcasting from the ‘operations center’ are all activities which bring a virtual event to life.
4. EXHIBITIONS AND TRADE SHOWS IN IVW
- Exhibits as broad-ranging and multilevel marketing instruments
Various kinds of exhibitions can be organized in IVWs, e.g., science, art, and trade shows. An art gallery was operational in AV98, but this was nothing more than a side event in order to increase the total experience of really being in a world. AV98 was mainly a conference and a trade show. The trade show was only a modest experiment and not really a commercial endeavour, but more a fund-raising instrument for CCON. With this in mind, we pay attention to the possibility of organizing trade shows in IVW. One of our main points is that the general characteristics of IVWs can also be applied to trade shows in IVW on the Internet. In addition, we try to give these characteristics a more specific meaning while speaking about trade shows.
In relation to the development of multimedia ICT, organizing trade shows in IVWs is, as we see it, a logical step in a developmental process. First traditional trade shows in physical space started using more and more advanced multimedia applications and ICT. For instance, the tracking of attendees can be done be adding bar-codes to their badges and scanning them at the booth for a statistical analysis of attendance. The next step is to create virtual trade shows on the Internet where customers, by using more or less sophisticated search engines, can choose from a certain stock of products put into some kind of electronic catalogue. This type of broker application is made more visually attractive by designing 3D-graphics. An example is the virtual 3-D "Millennium Christmas Trade show" with 3D booths, operational on the Internet from October 29 till Christmas 1999. Of course, this is not an Inhabited Virtual World: customers do not interact with one another. In an Inhabited or Avatar Virtual World, clients and customers are aware of each other and can interact socially. Trade shows in IVW on the Internet fulfil their broker function by being a place where complicated social interaction is possible.
In the arsenal of non-direct selling marketing instruments, trade shows in physical space stand out as instruments with a large bandwidth of consumer contacts. Trade shows fulfil a lot of selling, but also non-selling performances. Attendees can see the products, experience hands-on demonstrations, ask questions and receive direct answers, hear and read complex messages about the products, and compare them with other products. Other marketing instruments like direct mail, advertisements in print, sales calls, and radio messages do not match this performance. All this is about products and selling. Interaction mediated by Avatars and – eventually - complemented by video and audio streams in IVWs can come close to face-to-face selling interactions in physical spaces. Trade shows can also have important non-selling functions.
In general, we believe that trade shows in IVW can in the future increasingly perform a broad range of social functions in relation to clients and customers, which can be arranged as a hierarchy. In one of the few articles in which a conceptual framework for the study of trade shows is presented, the activities at a booth during a trade show are categorised as information-gathering, motivational, relation-building, and image-building activities (Hansen, 1999). This type of action analysis brings the AGILscheme of the sociologist Talcott Parsons to mind. He theorised about four distinct functional aspects of action, which could be ordered in a hierarchy. At the lowest level, he placed the adaptive function of action, followed by the goal-attainment, the integrative, and the latency function. The action criteria that can be deduced from the AGIL-scheme are flexibility of the means, attainment of specific goals, social cohesion, and trust centred on a certain set of values, a concept, or an image. In the research on trade shows, attention is mostly paid to the lower functions. In our opinion, the networking society and its virtual or imaginary organizations, cohesion-building, and the creation and maintenance of trust are also very important problems.
In the (near) future, trade shows in IVWs will have the possibility of combining the traditional booth activities, focused on the product and - eventually - selling, with lectures and talks in some kind of conference room (important for image-building) and with the prospect of in-depth discussions, the performance of collaborative work, and complicated negotiating being done in electronic rooms powered with the tools of groupware. (group decision support systems). In that way, the higher function receives more attention. In section 4.2, we limit ourselves to the lowest level, the functional themes of flexibility and effectiveness.
4.2 Trade shows in IVWs and flexibility and effectiveness
First of all, in the social sciences, the theme of flexibility is related to the amount of information and the elimination of various kinds of constraints (time, space, and cost constraints).
As we suggested before, all kinds of registration techniques are used to gather information about the flow of attendees through the trade show in physical space. An advantage of virtual trade shows on the Internet is that tracking and ‘click through’ path tracing can be done quite easily. It is also an important aspect of trade shows in IVWs that bots, acting as automated conversational agents, can be employed. Such bots can perform simple tasks in the process of information exchange. They can also drive the visitor’s web-browser to retrieve their conference pass information and perform a ‘card swipe’ operation in exchange for sending information or delivering free gifts. Of course, the booth as such can also perform information broker functions. It can serve as a portal into either the organization’s website or to custom-built virtual worlds where special talks or events might be sponsored during the period of the trade show.
An obvious advantage of virtual trade shows is that the trade show can be set up quite quickly. For instance, the Active Worlds technology provides streaming and reuse of 3D objects in a Lego-like manner. Therefore, trade show and booth designers can put together and duplicate a lot of prefabricated objects and design booths of all sizes. The arsenal of 3D objects will grow quickly.
Exhibits for companies and participating organizations such as Boeing
In the literature on trade, a great deal of attention is paid to staffing the booths. In trade shows in IVW, this can be done by persons from the sponsoring organization, but in future, bots can play a larger part in the booth activities. This implies a better division of labor between bots and persons. People can then handle the more complicated questions from clients and customers.
One other thing that trade shows in IVW can handle quite efficiently is the allocation and transportation of people to their chosen location. The technique of a ‘big board’ conference and trade show schedule, borrowed from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, brings people to the desired location (booth) with a click of their mouse.
Active Worlds browser showing the 3D view with conference chair Bruce Damer waving in his custom avatar floating by the schedule board, chat window below, webpage showing the exhibit hall to the right and a list of active users on the left
5. WHAT WAS LEARNED ABOUT VIRTUAL MEETINGS IN IVWS?
If we look at AV98, the following positive claims for the hosting of large-scale events in IVWs can be made. These claims apply also to the trade show:
- More attendance: The attendance, calculated at over 4,000 visitors, was ten times that of the previous 'physically located' conferences.
- Cost-effectiveness: The budgetary outlay, excluding the extensive volunteer time costs, was 10% of the previous years.
- Mobilization of groups: By moving the conference inside Cyberspace, we empowered local groups and organizations to host their own events. Art museums had public openings with the Virtual Worlds displayed on the walls, cybercafes created evening parties and discussion, school and university classes convened and connected in, and people hosted gatherings in their own homes.
- Satisfied customers: Attendees reported to us that they had enjoyed the presentations and discussions. Order was kept by a volunteer organization who disciplined unruly attendees by ejecting them from the world for periods of time. No attendee reported undue disappointment with the event other than reflecting the sometimes slow performance of their browser in heavily populated areas.
- Fundraising: The sale of booth space in the exhibit hall raised funds for the Consortium (although much of this space was donated, as the exercise was still very experimental).
- Labor-saving automation: ‘Bots’, or automated agents, helped answer questions and direct attendees. Bots will be used more extensively in the future to man exhibits and interact with attendees, offering them web tours, video promotions, capturing visitor data in ‘card swipe’ fashion and awarding prizes.
In conclusion, while quite labor intensive, virtual conferences and trade shows modeled after Avatars98 will produce wide coverage and easy access for large audiences. We expect events like this to be increasingly part of the online time of ordinary and business net users alike in Cyberspace.
6. THE FUTURE OF THE MEDIUM IVW
We close this paper with some tentative observations, roughly applying Parsons’s theory of evolutionary universals (Parsons, 1966) to the evolution of IVWs.
In the early stages of colonizing Cyberspace, it is natural that a lot of attention is paid to architectural work on the layout of the world, its buildings, and Avatars. Many IVWs are in this ‘spadework phase’ and are only creating the preconditions for becoming a society. The second phase starts when the basic social institutions are erected to regulate social life within an IVW. These are the ‘basic anthropological institutions’ with the function of streamlining human activities around basic human needs, such as sex (the institution of marriage), the institutions of communication (language), and of giving meaning to life (religion) and so on. Such IVWs can be labeled ‘primitive societies’. In the modern phase of IVWs, we typically observe a functional differentiation of societies and the formation of specific institutions. Institutions such as a strict division of labor (for instance, in the form of bureaucratic organizations), money and market systems, universalistic systems of law (basic human rights and so on), a system to guide society and develop policy (a political system).
CCON is facilitating the breakthrough of IVWs from the primitive to the modern phase of societies. The content of all the major institutions in the modern phase is discussed in CCON’s Special Interest Groups. In our opinion, IVWs need the social technologies associated with various functional subsystems of society.
The realm of pastime, personal chat, and gaming must remain important for the further growth and development of IVWs. However, there is also the growing use of IVWs within the economic system and government. From that real,m we may expect the inclusion of Groupware to facilitate (virtual) meetings. The development of e-commerce and the use of virtual trade shows in the economic system is another impulse for a whole new array of ICT- and social technologies that can be used in IVWs.
To include these technologies in the VW browsers would make IVWs an even more exciting place to be, but would also make them more suitable as an exercise ground for the policy, organizational, and commercial tasks of real life.
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Bruce Damer and Stuart Gold are members of the Contact Consortium. Damer co-founded the organization in 1995 and Gold has headed up TheU Virtual University projects since 1996. Dr. Jan de Bruin is a policy scientist at Tilburg University, trained as an economist, sociologist, and political scientist. Dirk-Jan de Bruin is a member of Contact Consortium and founder of Multi-Users Virtual Worlds Consortium.
(c) 2000 Bruce Damer, Jan and Dirk-Jan de Bruin, Stuart Gold
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