After several months of confinement and working remotely, the challenge of the NCCR Chemical Biology was to organize a virtual event, which would stimulate interactions and exchanges between its network’s members. With a context of Zoom-fatigue, we looked for a more interactive solution and identified the platform Gather Town, to hold the first NCCR Chemical Biology virtual poster session in February 2021. This event brought together approximately 70 researchers. Here, we share the lessons learned from our experience and the feedback from participants.
For almost 10 years, NCCR researchers have met in a hotel nestled in the beautiful landscape of the Swiss mountains to share the progress of their scientific research during the annual retreat. In an informal and relaxed atmosphere, doctoral students, postdocs, scientific collaborators and professors from several scientific disciplines and institutions got to know each other, exchanged ideas and considered possible new avenues for future collaborations. Throughout the years, this major annual event consistently contributed in a significant way to the vitality of the scientific research at NCCR Chemical Biology!
At the end of 2020 we decided to look for an innovative solution to transpose the retreat into a virtual setting. Our main objective was to recreate online the dynamic of informal exchanges. Therefore, we decided as a first step to reduce the event to an e-poster session rather than organize the full traditional retreat including oral presentations.
Quickly, we excluded traditional video conferencing platform (such as Zoom) as it does not offer, even in the breakout rooms, enough freedom and spontaneity in conversations. With the help of some Google search, we identified Gather Town, a platform that allows participants to move and interact freely within a virtual space.
However, within our professional network, no one had ever tested it while many were facing the same questioning about which platform to use. This lack of feedback on our prospective attempt did not reassure us. The promise of online conviviality and interactions encouraged us to take the plunge, but also to document and share our experience, so others could benefit from it.
Before the event, we felt uncertain about 3 points:
• Inclusiveness: Will Gather Town be user-friendly for all participants (20 to 65-years-old)?
• Technical aspects: Will the event take place without major technical problems?
• Interactivity: Will the event succeed to stimulate interaction and informal exchanges between participants?
Gather Town: how does it work?
Meeting room, classroom, lounge, garden, seaside… Gather Town is a 2D replica of real spaces chosen and designed by the event organizer. In a 8-bit pixelized world which look like a video game, each participant moves freely its avatar using the arrows of the computer keyboard.
When avatars approach one another, participants can talk to each other through a video call, launched automatically. As in real life, participants are free to choose where to go and with whom to speak, exchanging a few words with one, engaging in a longer conversation with another or just deciding to move away if they wish. Interactive objects (such as poster panels, documents placed on a table, television screens, etc.) can be purposefully placed by the organizer to be revealed when an avatar is near the object, while the avatar remains connected by video with the participants nearby. As in real life, when a participant steps on the stage area (“spotlight tile”), his/her voice and video is shared to everyone in the room.
For our virtual poster session, we created two interconnected spaces:
• A lounge with a warm atmosphere created with an open fire, sofas, tables, chairs, and even a bar with a coffee machine! This space was accessible 30 minutes before the start of the event to allow participants to discover the platform and its features, and as in any event, to be able to chat informally with other participants before delving into the scientific content.
• A poster session hall with 30 poster panels, in which participants were able to move around freely for 3 hours and view the posters of their choice on their computer screen, while interacting with the poster presenter and with the other participants nearby. The list of all posters with their corresponding numbers was displayed on central panels.
An interaction close to real life
Following the event, the main feedback from participants concerned the fluidity of the interactions. This is clearly shown in the survey organized after the event, to which half of the participants responded. Almost 90% of respondents rated the interactivity in Gather Town as very good or excellent.
Many participants told that this virtual session poster was very similar to the real life experience. “This event was very similar to a regular poster session as you can see people moving around,” said one of the attendees. Another one commented that he/she really liked “the virtual space into which you can move, hang around, bump into people and chat for a while. The mode is very similar to real conferences and very intuitive to use. It is what I miss the most about conferences, this was a nice compensation!”
Feedback from participants after the poster session in Gather Town
The feedback from participants during and after the event is largely positive: 97% of respondents rate the poster session as “excellent” (47%) or “very good” (50%). “This was actually awesome! I love the format of the event, being able to walk around and talk to people is way better than Zoom.”
Upon entering the interface, many participants were first surprised to discover this new interface, but most of them quickly understood intuitively how it worked.
When asked what they liked the most, four things stand out:
1. Closeness to reality
2. Ease of interaction
3. Freedom to move
Some participants even see advantages over an actual poster session. One of them liked to “be able to get a bird’s eye view on the whole room and presenters, and also see who’s available in real time (impossible to do in normal conferences).” For another, “the discussions with the scientists presenting the poster was easier than in real poster sessions: less crowded, less noise.”
Regarding the drawbacks of this online poster session, 67% of respondents gave a free answer mentioning 3 main elements:
• Technical problems, mainly related to a bad Internet connection or to the wrong choice of browser or computer device (Gather Town is supported on Chrome, Firefox and Desktop Safari (in Beta), and is not optimized for mobiles or tablets). Most of the participants were able to solve these difficulties and the connection issues (video, audio) did not affect the overall positive rating of the event.
• Difficulties related to certain features of Gather Town, in particular the limited use of the pointer, which does not allow the presenter to easily refer to a particular point of his/her poster. Some participants also mentioned the lack of intuitiveness to find out how to open an interactive object (such as a poster) on their screen.
• A few participants found that the interaction distance with other avatars was too large: “outside of private spaces, it can get a bit messy with many people having different conversations.” We do think that it comes close to how real events happen, with some hot spots where many people hang out in a merry hubbub. In Gather Town, each participant can actually reduce its avatar’s interaction distance with the “quiet mode”, but not all participants had noticed this feature.
Before the event, we had mentioned these 3 elements in a user guide sent to all participants. However, the experience shows that the majority of participants did not read the guidelines.
Regarding the outcome of the poster session, 50% of respondents consider that it is similar, or even better, than the real life event. On the other hand, 22% consider the outcome as less good: “it was a very good e-poster session, but the in-person one stays better“. For the remaining 28%, it was a first experience, with no comparison possible.
Tips for anticipating difficulties
Overall, the poster session went smoothly and in a relaxed atmosphere. However, following the feedback from participants and our observations during the event, we can give two tips to ensure a smooth event.
1. Make sure participants are well informed about the minimum instructions for the best possible experience.
Indeed, although the instructions were sent by email before the event, most participants did not consult them or did not remember them. We therefore recommend writing, directly in the body of your email, the essential elements to know so that the event takes place in the best possible way. Additionally, creating a short how-to video might be a better option than sending a PDF document only.
The minimum instructions to communicate:
• The type of browser compatible with Gather Town
• The non-optimization for mobiles/tablets
• The possibility to reduce the interaction distance with the “quiet mode”
• How to open an interactive object to see it on its screen
2. Invite speakers, facilitators and participants to test the platform before the event.
When you are used to Zoom meetings, Gather Town can be a bit confusing at first. A few participants needed a little more time to feel comfortable on this new platform. Speakers and participants with an active role to play during the event will be reassured to discover the platform before the D-Day in order to familiarize themselves with the space and to master the main technical features.
Conclusion and future perspectives
Regarding our initial concerns, we saw that:
• Participants of all generations embraced easily and positively the platform. Among the youngest, the adhesion was faster and more intuitive. The older ones liked it too, with one even telling us: “this is the best online event I’ve been to since the lockdown!”
• Some participants encountered technical difficulties, but most of them were solved. Much of it could have been avoided with a better appropriation and communication of the instructions before the event. No technical issue affecting the whole event was encountered.
• The interaction was close to the one experienced in real life. The event lasted almost 4 hours and at the end, we even had to push the last group of participants out to “close the room”!
All survey respondents (100%) would recommend the use of Gather Town for another event. The possibility of being able to recreate conference rooms, with rows of chairs and a podium, makes it possible to imagine larger events.
56% of participants consider that Gather Town (or similar platforms) could even be a valid alternative beyond the COVID-19 context, in addition to events taking place in real life.
This last point opens up new perspectives, not initially considered: while universities and researchers wish to reduce their ecological footprint, Gather Town and similar platforms could be alternatives to seriously limit national and international travels to academic events, while maintaining fruitful exchanges between scientists.
As a communications consultant for changemakers, Noëlle Rodembourg helps organizations, academic institutions and social entrepreneurs communicate in an effective, relevant, ethical and responsible way. For the NCCR Chemical Biology, with which she has collaborated since 2016, she imagined and realized the virtual transition of the poster session on Gather Town. She is the founder of Sow Change – Communication des projets positifs.