Back view of female employee speak talk on video call with diverse multiracial colleagues on online briefing, woman worker have Webcam group conference with coworkers on modern laptop at homeWe all travel virtually to conferences and meetings today, and there’s been an explosion of tools to make it happen. Zoom is the most widely known but there are many other tools, many with different purposes. While some tools claim to be a complete answer, the truth is no one tool does it all. The time has come for this industry to do what many others do — interoperate so people can mix and match tools when putting together a virtual event.
The urge to “own it all” drives companies to remain walled gardens. Sometimes it’s just the inertia of not wanting to make the effort, or facing the limitations of any common interface, which will not handle everything a tool does.
In attending large numbers of online meetings, every one was lacking something that might have been provided by another tool. Organizers would be ready to do this — these tools are all vastly cheaper than renting a meeting hall was — but it’s hard to do.
In June, I held a large virtual party where I used 8 different meeting tools at once. This was deliberate — part of the theme was to play around in different tools. The biggest barrier was being able to move seamlessly between environments, which all have their own way of authenticating users. Even free tools, that don’t need money, often tend to require users to create accounts or type in their name and a profile, or work better if people do. Meeting hosts also want authentication to keep “room bombers” (griefers who try to enter open meetings to disrupt them) out.
Organizers want a seamless experience. If a user is logged in, they want them to be able to quickly transfer to a different technology. They don’t want them to have to create an account in that system, or a profile. They don’t want the web URL used to access the other system to be one that can be shared to those who are not authorized to attend the session. While in a session, they would like people to be able to access common functions like clicking on a person and seeing their profile within the event.
Zoom does offer an extensive API which allows web apps to control Zoom meetings, but as yet I have not seen any tool integrate it with other online conference tools. Generally instead those conferences create Zoom rooms with passwords and make the links to join available within their conference system, or email them to participants. Other tools offer even less.
Variety of tools
Here are some of the functions that are showing up on online event systems:
- Video Meeting (like Zoom) with a group of participants able to talk. Sometimes with official “speakers” and sometimes just a general room. These will also have chat, a list of facilities and a question facility. They may also have other tools like shared whiteboards. Some offer a “breakout room” facility where participants in the meeting can be distributed, either at random or by list, to sub-meetings, from which they can have more manageable conversations, and then return. A wide variety of tools exist in this space, including Zoom, Skype, Google Meet
, Jitsi and others.
- Video streams or webinars, with an invisible audience, typically including chat, a question facility and other collaborative tools. Production of the video streams can involve fancy video production environments, simple systems for a host and guest, or can be a meeting tool. A very large number of webinar tools exist. Tools like Youtube and Twitch, along with platforms like Hopin, allow streaming to audiences of hundreds of thousands, more than could attend any virtual event.
- As noted above, there are a wide variety of online collaboration tools (mostly made for the remote work market) such as shared whiteboards and documents. Some of these are integrated with meeting tools, some are stand-alone and would be nice to integrate with the chosen tools.
- Along with the meetings and webinars, a means to record them and provide access to them as quickly as possible. Some tools do not make recordings available for a few hours. In other cases, recordings can be watched while the event is underway, allowing people to arrive late and start at the beginning. (Not yet available in most cases, the very handy ability to play the video at a faster speed in order to “catch up.”)
- Speaker management tools, including special access for speakers, “backstage” platforms to prepare speakers before a talk, and systems to allow speakers to provide a pre-recorded version of their talk or session which can be used as a backup if the live presentation fails — or which is always intended to be played instead of a live presentation.
- Random “speed dating” (similar to Chat Roulette without the downsides) where attendees can join and are paired randomly with another attendee for a short conversation. The conversation is cut off after the time limit so you go on to somebody else.
- Group speed dating, such as a simulated lunch room with tables where attendees can “grab a seat” and have a conversation with a small group.
- Company exhibits of all types, ranging from simulations of a trade show booth with video and live staff to simple web listings with a means to contact company reps. Most systems remain fairly primitive even though this was a major revenue center for physical conferences.
- Attendee “matchmaking” tools to help you find other attendees you may wish to connect with, along with a means to request a connection, or even an immediate or scheduled 1 on 1 video call during the event.
- Virtual spaces, where attendees can move little avatars around the space, seeing clumps of other people and getting close to them to join in their conversation. Some include video, while one, named High Fidelity focuses on using high quality stereo audio and works best with headphones.
- Full on virtual reality spaces, such as Second Life or others, ideally consumed via a VR headset, but usually also usable in 2D with a regular browser. These can be very involved and complex but often have too high a learning curve for conferences not very committed to them.
- Chat tools, such as Slack and Discord, which allow the creation of large numbers of channels. In Discord, the channels can be audio and video chat rooms. There is support for large numbers of “bots” to provide services in the text chat rooms. One attractive feature of these systems is the ability to see all the rooms at once, and who and how many are in them, as you “wander” the conference.
- Fairly uncommon are “glue” systems to show a “view from above” of the conference, to give attendees a quick sense of what’s going on in all the areas of the conference. These must typically be built by hand. I built one for my 8-technology party so people could see who was where.
- Conference attendee management, including selling tickets and registration, and controlling access to different functions based on ticket. (This function was very common in tools to manage physical conferences, and many of those tools have been attempting to move into the virtual conference space.)
- Marketing tools for selling things to attendees. Some conferences and webinars are really just sales events (sometimes overtly, sometimes not) and they desire ways to close sales and collect leads. Prior to Covid-19, a lot of the webinar space was devoted to this.
- Tools to let sponsors promote to attendees in the hope sponsors will pay more. Sponsorship of virtual conferences has become a more difficult sell than it was in the physical world.
This list is far from exhaustive, but it demonstrates that it is very unlikely that any company is going to offer the best in breed in every category, and customers will want the ability to mix and match. Of course, the harder mixing is, the more they might tolerate an inferior integrated function, but they really want the best of all worlds if they can get it.
One basic tool is a unified login or single-sign on. While there are famous providers for this like Google and Facebook, a better approach would be to let the main platform define that login using a tool like OpenID, defining attributes that can then be used by the other tools. An alternate approach would be a web API, where all needed attributes are passed (including, if needed a one-time token to prevent URLs being shared.) So, a Discord server might be able to generate a URL that would be understood by Zoom or Jitsi or Glimpse or HighFidelity with user profile information and authentication.
This would also define the form of back-URLs, so that if a user clicks on a person they can be taken to a page where they can make contact with that person, if this is what is desired. None of this is rocket science — the main step needed is for companies to accept that they will not win the game on their own, and they can be stronger together.