With a certain virus causing conferences to close their doors, many organizers are looking for a way to bring their conference online. Some, like IEEE VR 2020 and the Educators in VR International Summit, have already jumped to a purely digital presence.
In this article, I’m going to lay out the 7 technological tools that comprise a full tech stack for an accessible virtual conference. These are:
- Video Conferencing
- Video Streaming
- Audience Engagement
- Virtual Reality
Note before we begin that simply using accessible tools is not enough to make your conference fully accessible. Make sure to follow the digital aspects of guidelines such as the W3C Guidelines for Accessibility of Remote Meetings and SIG Access Accessible Conference Guide.
Now, let’s dive in.
Purpose: Introduction, Central Hub
It should go without saying that every conference needs a website. Your website will serve as an introduction and hub, telling users what your conference is about and how to access it.
For a good, accessible user experience:
- Ensure that important actions, like checking the schedule or registering, are easily navigated to and clearly labeled.
- Provide a clear description of what technologies you’re using for your conference and all of the information needed for attendees to install and access them.
- Make sure your website is screen reader accessible and meets other basic accessibility guidelines.
2. Video Conferencing
Purpose: Presentation, Panels
Your panelists and speakers need an environment in which to talk and present their work. Video conferencing software offers one that’s easy to join, present from, record, and stream, and requires minimal training.
On presenting in virtual reality: While you can present from within virtual reality if you’re using it, this comes with a host of accessibility and training challenges and generally limits your audience to those already familiar with VR. Unless you are specifically showcasing something three dimensional, it’s better to simply stream your video conference into VR instead.
Note that Zoom and Webex do offer webinar services that can eliminate the need for much of the software on this list, such as broadcasting, captioning, and audience engagement. On the plus side, fewer technologies means lower complexity and better accessibility; but the price of webinars with large numbers of attendees, combined with the inflexibility of this approach, means you should still check whether a more modular approach better suits your needs.
*Zoom is currently facing scrutiny over privacy and security concerns — make sure it’s up to your organization’s standards before using it.
UPDATE: It seems that Google Meet only offers autogenerated captions, and Zoom only offers participant-typed or 3rd-party captions via a REST API.
3. Video Broadcasting
Purpose: Audience Viewing, Video on Demand
If you want to get your conference out to the broadest audience possible, using a video broadcasting service like YouTube or Twitch is the way to do it. Both can distribute your sessions to an arbitrarily large audience and automatically turn them into video on demand for asynchronous viewing, all for free.
Note that YouTube will provide optional captions after the livestream is over and it has had time to process the video. However, if you want your caption-using attendees to be able to participate in real-time, you’ll need to turn on your video conferencing captions or use one of the solutions below.
Purpose: Improve Accessibility, Broaden Audience
Many, many people benefit from captions; not only those with hearing or language based disabilities, but anyone trying to attend your conference in a noisy environment. Thus, captions should be a priority for anyone who wants their conference to reach a broad population.
Though some videoconferencing tools can autogenerate captions, it’s worth considering options like StreamText or Amara. The former can enable a stenographer to capture live audio and transform it into text in realtime, providing an embeddable, customizable stream of text. The latter will help you create human-generated captions and integrate them with your videos, creating a much better experience than the imperfect (especially for proper nouns) AI-generated captions.
Whatever your captioning setup, make sure you test it beforehand to ensure that you don’t have multiple layers of captions overlapping one another, or covering up important parts of your content. Your captions should be clear and unobscured.
5. Audience Engagement
Purpose: Q&A, Polling, Audience Retention
With an audience distributed across multiple platforms, it’s important to have an engagement tool that can be accessed from anywhere as well. These tools can be accessed on any device with a simple text or QR code; they enable audience members to ask questions, answer polls, and otherwise engage with your material, and you or your volunteers can moderate by lifting up good questions and squashing trolls.
With digital conferences, it’s very easy for audience members to drift away to other tabs and activities. Letting them engage with the speakers and one another will do a lot to encourage attention and retention.
Purpose: Communication, Announcements, Troubleshooting
It’s vital for any conference to have a means of rapid communication for organizers and audiences. In past years that might have been walkie talkies and PA systems, but now we have messaging tools like Discord and Slack.
If you’ve never used one of these, you can think of it as AOL Instant Messenger or IRC (Internet Relay Chat) on steroids. Users can message one another, create threads and channels, send announcements, and create profiles to connect others to their social media. They’re amazingly useful for encouraging asynchronous discussion and helping users troubleshoot any problems they may have with other parts of the conference.
- Users can customize their profile for each event or workspace
- Excellent threading and filesharing tools
- Powerful bots and service integrations with Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.
- Built-in roles and permissions support (e.g. admin, volunteer, attendee)
- One-click join links, no limits on attendees or messages for free version
- Excellent integration with Mozilla Hubs VR
- Great voice chat tools for small groups
7. Virtual Reality
Purpose: Organic Social Connection
As physical conferences close, there’s been a ton of talk around holding conferences in VR (virtual reality). Conferences like IEEE VR 2020 and the Educators in VR summit held some or all of their sessions purely in VR!
Now, coming from a longtime student and fan of VR, this may be surprising to hear, but here’s my take on it:
Don’t hold conferences that are 100% VR.
At least, not yet.
VR is an amazing tool for simulating that feeling of rubbing shoulders with other conference goers, as well as for forming natural discussion groups that people can drift in and out of. Compared to the rigid “I’m in this meeting or I’m not” experience of video conferencing, VR offers a much more organic, familiar way to connect with other people. That means VR is great for viewing parties, breakout sessions, and happy hours — events where the focus is on introductions, chatter, and socializing. Used wisely, VR can be the secret sauce that gives your conference a real sense of human connection.
However, VR is still far from an accessible format, for many reasons.
- For those with disabilities, support for tools they rely on (screen readers, captions, ASL interpreters, etc.) is simply not there yet.
- With the exception of Mozilla Hubs, many platforms require a Windows PC or standalone VR headset to join, excluding large swaths of possible attendees.
- For presenters, even trying to get through a powerpoint in VR is challenging, let alone screensharing or presenting interactive demos.
Over time, these tools will improve and catch up on core accessibility features — groups like XR Access and W3C are pushing for just that. The platforms will also become more sophisticated, usable, and integrated with other essential tools. Until then, though, it’s better to keep VR an optional aspect of your conference, rather than a mandatory one.
As to which VR system to choose, Mozilla Hubs has the lowest barrier to entry, as it requires no accounts or downloads and is available on mobile, desktop, and VR. The Mozilla team has also shown a dedication to accessibility that puts them ahead of the game on that regard. That said, platforms like Altspace have powerful social features and larger capacities that may make them better for some purposes.
So there you have it! The 7 technologies that will let you lift your physical convention into the cloud. Hopefully someday soon all of these functions will be consolidated into one, easy-to-use software package, but in the meantime, mastering these will help you do what would have been unimaginable only a few years ago: run an efficient digital convention without you or a single attendee stepping out of your homes.
Many thanks to Bill Curtis-Davidson, Nicolò Carpignoli, Joel Ward, Devin Boyle, Shiri Shiri Azenkot, and the other folks at XR Access who contributed to this article.