Meeting Owls and Poster Bots

13 October 2021

We are looking forward to starting a discussion on hybrid events and the related new technologies. In this post, Alastair Downie, Head of IT at the Gurdon Institute and Director at The Company of Biologists shares his thoughts.

As Universities scramble to establish resources for the ‘new normal’ in time for the start of the academic year, there’s much talk about hybrid meetings – where some participants may be present in the meeting room while others will participate remotely. For the last decade, the posh way to organise this has been to install a sophisticated camera system and dedicated video-conferencing hardware at the end of a meeting room (or table), underneath a large TV display. This undoubtedly looks impressive in the meeting room, but my feeling is that it’s never really provided a great experience for the remote participants – stuck to the wall, as it were, their point of view can make them feel somewhat marginalised.

We’ve been doing some work with Meeting Owls recently – clever devices that sit in the middle of the table and pan their built-in camera and microphone to focus on whoever is speaking, providing a much better and more engaging experience for remote participants. We’ve found them to be useful in larger seminars too where, previously, groups of researchers from various departments may have travelled to a host department – now those researchers can gather around Owls in their own departments, participating remotely but, crucially, as a group.

The Company of Biologists has been interested in sustainable conferencing for many years, driven originally by a desire to reduce air travel and environmental impact, but also acknowledging benefits in terms of accessibility and inclusivity. We have been considering the pros and cons of fully-online conferences, hybrid conferences, and hub-and-satellite models (that might be influenced by the ‘seminar+Owls’ experiments above). The obvious difficulty, common to all of these alternative conference models, is how to maintain the informal and often random conversations with colleagues and peers from around the world, that so often become the spark for new ideas and areas of research.

Poster sessions – where presentations become conversations – are a particularly sticky challenge. Could ‘Poster Bots’ provide a solution?! We’ve been wondering about putting a Meeting Owl on a tall trolley, and trundling it around on a tour of the poster session, stopping at each poster in turn to stream the researcher’s presentation, but also to enable remote participants to engage in the informal chat that follows. The mind boggles with comedy images of <insert your favourite movie robot> going berserk and setting fire to the posters, but if it works it might be a lot of fun. Another idea has been floated, proposing that Owls could be installed on a couple of quiet tables at a conference, where conversations with speakers (or friends!) could be scheduled.

The Meeting Owl does seem to offer some new possibilities and opportunities. We have some experiments to do and will report back here in due course but, in the meantime, if you have any thoughts about bots or any other ideas that might help to improve the experience for online conference participants, we’d be very pleased if you would share them here.

Are you thinking about how to improve the sustainability of your event? Find out more about our Sustainable Conferencing Grants and how we can help you to collaborate productively while minimising your impact on the environment for your next scientific event.

Visit our sustainability blogs for more tips.

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