The Race to Repair Digital Conferences

In the office before the pandemic, for example, you would meet colleagues and have spontaneous conversations all day – about your pets, your boss, whatever project you were on. Information would be disseminated, ideas exchanged and additional meetings planned. However, if you move from one meeting to the next while zooming in, you’ll need to choose which buttons to click. There is no buffer for chance and fewer opportunities to bond. The sales rep who stopped by to meet with a customer prior to the pandemic had to walk through the office and say hello to everyone. The next time the customer needed to buy new customer relationship management software, she might not remember which product had the most security features, but she did remember this charming sales rep who went to her alma mater. Now sellers need to demonstrate a product through Zoom. Having to share their screens prevents them from taking full advantage of their charisma or demeanor. The best thing they can do to cultivate a relationship is to send a follow up email. Maybe a meme.

If you were a senior engineer or academic before the pandemic, you could count on attending a few conferences a year with others in your field. You’d walk through the various company booths, pick up some branded giveaways, get a quick recap of the latest technology or paper over dinner, and end up with a few days of vacation. In contrast, a pandemic conference consists of a series of Zoom calls for 300 people with only one person able to speak at a time.

It is testament to the fertility of Silicon Valley that so many startups dedicated to tackling such restrictions on working from home have skyrocketed over the past year. Hopin, which was founded in 2019, gained prominence as thousands of academic and corporate conferences went online. Customers included the United Nations and TechCrunch Disrupt. Compared to Zoom or Gather.town, Hopin requires more preparation and setup: customers need to design their virtual venue to opt for everything from color schemes and logos to sponsorships and schedules. “The example I like to give is when you rent out a large building for an event,” says Johnny Boufarhat, Hopin’s founder and managing director. “There is likely a meeting room on the office floor that is a video conferencing platform,” says Zoom. “But then there’s usually a large venue downstairs on the building’s ground floor, and the venue can morph into anything you want – maybe you host a recruiting night; Maybe we’ll see a conference. Maybe you have a meeting. “

Each event starts on a Hopin profile page. Use the Enter key to go to the homepage of the virtual conference. There is an ongoing group chat on the right. On the left is the conference banner and a list of all live speaker sessions. Clicking on one of these will take you into a zoom-like room. In this room the audience can vote on questions to be asked of the speaker. You can also browse a comprehensive list of conference participants and invite one of them for a custom video chat.

While Hopin’s focus is on efficiency, there are other startups that are more actively trying to recreate the chance workplace encounters. The virtual offices created by Teamflow and Branch have personal desks, public areas, and private conference rooms. Teamflow shows your video as a bubble in a virtual office map that you can move around the office by typing on your keyboard. If you want to search for co-workers, just approach them. When you go to your next meeting, you can “meet” someone.

Much of the inspiration for this bloom of spatial meeting platforms comes from video games. Yang Mou, the executive director of Kumospace, was a competitive StarCraft gamer in college and wondered why he could spend hours playing online with his friends and not want to stop while zoom meetings were just taking place. In developing Kumospace, he was particularly influenced by massive multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. “One of the jokes is that it’s a glorified chat room,” he says. “You play the game, you run out of things and then you really just hang out with friends.” He adds, “It’s like going to the mall.”

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