VenueGen asked me to look at their virtual collaboration platform and write about it on my blog. I told them that I was coming to the table with a healthy dose of cynicism and they said they were eager for the challenge of winning me over. After my demo conferencing session with CEO David Gardner and just a bit of exploration on my own, I’m afraid my cynicism remains – as applied to outbound webinars or presentations. But it is tempered with enthusiasm and appreciation for some of the technological innovations that VenueGen is showcasing.
I want to give VenueGen a special acknowledgement right off the top. I told them that I had some negative impressions and reservations, and that it might be best for their image if I just chose to concentrate on something else a little closer to my typical coverage niche. To their credit, they told me to write what I felt and they did not even try to get a preview of my post before publication (which I wouldn’t have granted).
VenueGen is concentrating on virtual sessions hosted in an analog of real world settings. In this regard, the concept is similar to a handful of other virtual event platforms such as INXPO, ON24, Unisfair, and even the social networking-oriented Second Life. I have seen demos of the other platforms, but I am not an expert in this software category by any means. I was interested in whether VenueGen would be practical for the kinds of webinars and webcasts my clients typically produce.
There seem to be two major obstacles to smooth applicability of the VenueGen platform to public webinars. The first is access to the virtual event. Attendees must register with ValueGen to set up a “Free Trial Account” – which immediately makes me think of all the nasty sales approaches that have ever happened to me. Will I start getting sales calls from pushy representatives? Am I being added to this vendor’s email list? Is my free trial going to turn into a paid subscription unless I take positive action? As an attendee of an informational webinar, I may be willing to share my contact information with the hosting company, but I don’t like having to sign up with some other company I have never heard of. Especially when I am directed to a sales-oriented page with a comparative marketing points checklist of VenueGen vs. WebEx.
If I do make the decision to sign up as an attendee, I have to go through automated download, install, and update of software on my computer. On a Vista operating system, it triggers repeated confirmation security popups. I also had an experience on one attendee computer where I was unable to join the meeting after the initial download and install step. I had to reload the session from scratch, and log in again to join. Things have to be faster, easier, and smoother in order to get one-time attendees into a webinar. I found that the software installed a startup process on my machine called the VenueGen Updater. Vista didn’t like it, and keeps informing me that it is blocking it. I’m not a fan of permanent processes installed without my explicit okay.
Once I create an account, I am presented with options for my online avatar. It’s hard at first to tell which steps are mandatory and which are optional. VenueGen lets you choose all kinds of facial types, hair styles, and clothing, going so far as to let you upload pictures of yourself to turn into an illustrated rendering of your own face (By the way, in repeated attempts with pictures painstakingly taken to their specifications, I could never get anything out of their customizer that even remotely resembled me. I’m not African American or Latino, but the software sure seemed to want to color me that way). It turns out that as an attendee, you can just pick a gender and let the software choose a random look for you, if you know to stop there.
Once you get into the virtual event space, the second major obstacle is apparent. There are just too many damned controls. VenueGen says it is based on an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) engine, and the interface looks like an ultra-sophisticated gaming console. I entered a room as an attendee and found myself looking at 40 icons spaced around the bottom and right side of the screen. Click a button and you see another 24 control icons! I felt like a puppeteer at Jim Henson’s workshop. Most of the controls cause your avatar to make gestures or facial expressions. You can jump up and down, do a little dance, point a finger at your head, indicate surprise, happiness, sadness, grouchiness, and dozens more. If you do nothing, the software makes your avatar have little “natural” movements so you don’t look too stiff and lifeless. You have a setting bar to control how much animation and “life” to put into your character. Other controls manage camera angles, audio functionality, views of yourself and other attendees, etc.
The programming sophistication in the virtual environment is obvious. Everything is done to try to replicate what happens in a real room. You drag the cursor around to look in different directions, and you can’t see beyond your peripheral vision. But unlike the real world, you can scroll in and out to get a closeup view of anything you see. It’s like having very powerful binoculars with you at all times. Wearing a computer headset (and the environment is heavily biased towards this interface) creates interesting audio effects. If someone speaks while sitting or standing to your side, you hear them through that ear. Sounds pan as people move (oh yes, you can walk around and see others as they move). Each setting is programmed for acoustic effects including how rapidly sounds dissipate with distance from your character. In a lecture hall, you might hear the people next to you muttering or making comments while people a few rows back are muted.
And now we come to my favorite part of the interface… Infinite content display. A presenter (or attendee given the privilege) can share a PowerPoint, Word document, PDF, picture, or live desktop on the screen or screens in the room. The screens always seem to magically have space for more content, and you can have all kinds of things displayed at once. No tabs, no switching between items. The presenter can choose to focus on one document and progress through it, or the audience can distractedly look at the other things up and on display, zooming in on each one. This is powerful stuff, and a fascinating look at the new way of thinking about information display unbounded by the practical considerations of the real world or predefined consoles.
Unfortunately, the desire to make things relate to real world dynamics means that you may find yourself looking up at a skewed display as if from the first row of a movie theater. Or you may see it from off to one side, emphasizing the parallax shift from that perspective. Once you have a little training, you learn that you can pop up a content piece in a flat view overlay and even adjust how transparent it is to the room behind it. But that is going to be beyond the skills of first timers and large audiences.
David was very proud of the amount of emotive control possible with the avatars and the feedback they can give a presenter – the “body language” missing from traditional web conferencing. But my cynical expectation is that the audience will play with the controls at random for the sheer interest in making their character do funny things. I wouldn’t trust the feedback as indicative of real responses. And since people often forget they have set a control, I might see an audience member with a permanent frown on her face even though she was only momentarily annoyed a long time ago.
There are 28 predefined venues available for you to choose from when you schedule a meeting. These are quite inventive, including a church, an outdoor courtyard, a coffee shop, a classroom, a debate lectern with podiums, and even a yacht (huh?).
But the maximum capacity I could see for any of the venues was 50 people, so we’re not exactly scaled for large public webinars. I also saw no way to customize registration fields, get meeting reports on registration versus attendance, or set up confirmation and reminder emails.
I have to place VenueGen firmly and unequivocally in the space of being useful primarily for internal collaborative meetings with a defined universe of people who have taken the time to create accounts and get familiar with the interface until the novelty of treating it like a toy wears off. As the VenueGen main help and support page says: “The vast majority of new users have indicated in survey after survey that they learned how to use VenueGen in under ten minutes.” That is just 9 minutes and 30 seconds too long for a public webinar. Still, like a concept car presented at an auto show, there is some exciting technology on display that could be trickled down into “dumber” versions of the platform designed for public web events. I’d be interested in seeing that!