|"Mingling" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Alaska Library Association|
However, a colleague recently showed me an online meeting platform called Sococo that offers a way forward for online conferences. Sococo is aimed at the corporate market but the concept can certainly be developed for academic purposes, either by them or a completely different organisation. Have a look at the video below to get an idea of how this works. Basically you can design a virtual office with a lobby, group rooms, large meeting room and so on. The plan shows where each participant is and you can move to different rooms to talk with someone or have a small meeting. Or everyone can gather in the main hall for a large meeting or lecture. Everyone in a room can then have video and audio contact with everyone else as well as being able to screenshare and chat as in all other web meeting platforms. The difference is that you can invite someone to meet you in the lobby or in a smaller room for more informal contact, or even in a hall or lobby. You can even knock on the door to a room and ask to join the discussion in there.
I particularly like the simple interface with the participants represented simply by coloured dots and names. When you are in a room you can see everyone via their web cameras but the office plan shows you where everyone else is at the moment. The step from the most popular web meeting tools to this one is therefore very small and is therefore more appealing than using a virtual world solution where you first need to create an avatar and then work out how to navigate. I don't think Sococo is designed for large conferences but it would be interesting to try it with smaller gatherings. We could also offer virtual city tours using GoPro cameras. The conference dinner will be hard to accomplish but maybe you could create a number of web meeting group rooms, divide up the participants into random groups and ask them all to have their own dinners in front of them.
Creating a sense of space and interaction is a vital factor as we develop more engaging online meeting environments. I don't think we can fully replicate the advantages of face-to-face on-site meetings but if those become less acceptable this is the only way forward.