When the Minnesota Theater Alliance and the Twin Cities Sustainable Theaters Group collaborated on the first national conference on sustainable practices for the performing arts, they wanted to have attendee participation from around the United States and the world, but they didn’t have the budget to fly people in, said Leah Cooper, the alliance’s executive director. They did, however, have access to a beta version of Google+ Hangouts on Air (HOA), a free platform for webcasting interactive video. And that, Cooper said, turned out to be just what they needed.
HOA is a webcast extension of Google+ Hangouts, which allows up to 10 people – or computer screens – to communicate simultaneously. The “On Air” feature lets users broadcast a Google+ Hangout on the Internet by way of a personal computer or mobile device. It makes it possible, among other things, for a moderator or speaker to video-chat with nine more individuals or groups in a conversation broadcast to a virtually unlimited audience.
Sustainability in Theater Conference organizers used a password-protected event-broadcasting service to webcast keynotes and presentations on the first day of the two-day conference, held April 30–May 1 in downtown Minneapolis, and used HOA on the second day for breakouts. “It was a giant leap of faith for us,” Cooper said. “And, amazingly, everything worked.”
There were approximately 90 participants on site, with 30 more remote attendees in the U.K., Canada, and other parts of the United States. For the breakouts, between five to 10 remote attendees participated in sessions that were “entirely interactive,” Cooper said. Remote attendees “were able to converse with local participants in a totally conversational manner. It was really amazing.”
Google released the Hangouts on Air platform in stages, first offering it to select accounts, including celebrities and artists. (The Dalai Lama, President Obama, and the Muppets were early adopters.) Since Google rolled out the platform to the public in May, it has been met with enthusiasm, if not fervent praise, for its potential to foster connections and interactivity, including in the meetings industry. “Google Just Disrupted the Conference Business With Hangouts on Air,” read the headline of one widely shared blog post (convn.org/hoa-blog).
“I think it’s a big deal,” said Brandt Krueger, corporate technology director at metroConnections, a Minneapolis-based conference and event planning and production company. “There are alternatives that may or may not perform better, but Google Hangouts on Air has one big thing going for it. It brings the cost of entry way down – to free.”
Low risk is one of the factors that led consultant Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work, to use HOA to live-stream a keynote speaker from EdAccess 2012, a small, 70-participant information technology conference held June 18–21 in Hightstown, N.J.
Segar had done some advance preparation, including creating a test Google+ Hangout on Air, but it was limited – using the platform to live-stream from the conference didn’t occur to him until the night before the event started.
“It was pretty much spur of the moment,” he said. Some regular attendees who couldn’t make EdAccess had asked Segar if there was a way he could broadcast conference content, Segar wrote in a blog post about the event: “I had nothing to lose by trying out this new technology.”
Segar modified his technique during the broadcast, adding a second computer that displayed the speaker’s slides as he talked. There is no reason, Segar said in an interview with Convene, that he couldn’t have added a third computer to be used to rove the room and broadcast attendees’ questions, along with the speaker’s answers.
Although the broadcast lacked the polish that he would have gotten had he used a production company, for the price – $0 – and the amount of time spent, Segar was happy with the results. “Google has done a fantastic job with the technology,” he said. And by using “nice-quality web cameras and decent mikes,” users will get closer to professional results.
That goes for adequate bandwidth as well. In Minneapolis, the Sustainability in Theater Conference was held in a venue with an extremely fast Internet connection. “I think that is critical,” Cooper said. Using Google+ Hangouts on Air “was just a fantastic experience,” she said. “To our great surprise.”
Not Just Hangin’ Out
Using Google+ Hangouts on Air (HOA) to bring speakers and attendees together is a great way to “dip a toe” into webcasting, particularly for conferences that run on a shoestring, according to event technology expert Brandt Krueger. But there are also many other possibilities for using the interactive platform before and after events, he said.
Krueger has suggested to clients that they use HOA to promote upcoming events. “Get your speakers talking to each other and to attendees,” he said. “Or turn your iPhone to the rear-facing camera and take attendees on a walking tour of the facilities.” With HOA “still in the experimentation phase,” Krueger said, “my mind just starts going to all the potential uses.”
Read about Adrian Segar’s experiment with Google+ Hangouts on Air at convn.org/segar-hoa.