By Ellen Bari
Last week a cloud of volcanic ash over Europe precluded thousands of travelers from getting home, reminding us just how big the world really is without air travel. At the other end of the spectrum, here in New York, my partner Melissa Lopata and I, experienced the power of the global village and found ourselves inviting total strangers into our homes. Virtually, that is, and I might add quite unexpectedly.
It all started with a test, not of the ’emergency broadcasting system’ but of Vokle, a new web-based interactive conferencing technology that we were pioneering for our first live video event. We learned by default, that the system is public. That is, once you start an event, anyone can join from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection. As we were struggling with what seemed to be a bad connection with our conference leader and host, Cathy Greenberg PhD, happiness expert extraordinaire, we were a little concerned that our lack of mastery of the technology was testing Cathy’s happiness nerves.
In the meantime, I had asked a friend to join the broadcast so that Melissa, Cathy and I would have enough people to do a real test before the Sunday noontime virtual event. Ideally, we wanted four people to play the roles of, host, co-host, screener and participant. First, I was duly impressed that my girlfriend had figured out how to have an alias name on her computer, as she was showing up on the list of participants under a pseudonym. But when she started giving us advice on how to work with Vokle, she really blew me away. Not that I don’t think anyone can figure this stuff out it they spend enough time, but she had never even heard of Vokle before. And then, when she got on our conventional, phone conference call and admitted to not even being logged into the broadcast, I was totally perplexed.
So who was this other participant, and how did she know we were in trouble? As it turned out, our guest, I’ll call her Carol A., had joined our event randomly, which she does with many Vokle events, and was offering help based on her experience on the system. But our difficulties were more than Carol was able to handle, and before long, another person had joined the broadcast, this time sharing extremely confident recommendations for how to remedy our problems.
Through Twitter, Carol had alerted Shant K., one of Vokle’s founders, to the three virtual damsels in distress. Shant introduced himself, first through text chat, and then on a video connection, and soon Melissa, Cathy and I, and our new virtual friends were all chatting from our living rooms or home offices. Shant was our knight in shining armor and actually proceeded to spend many hours with us over the course of the next few days to iron out the kinks, which in fairness had more to do with internet connections and Flash players, than the Vokle technology itself. In fact, to insure that our broadcast went well, Shant joined us for the actual call…which I’m happy to report went very smoothly.
The system is quite amazing. It seems to have been developed with complex video sharing in mind, including functionality for behind-the-scenes producers, giving one person a kind of technical director control (from traditional TV) who can call the shots and switch cameras among different co-hosts. At the discretion of this omniscient producer, the system can even display a number of video screens at the same time, Brady Bunch Style. Throughout the broadcast, participants can ask text or video questions which appear on the screen for the host and all other attendees to see. While all this is going on, there’s a special text chat section that allows staff to communicate directly about what’s happening, while the broadcast is live. Once you get the Vokle terminology down, it’s quite fabulous. Momasphere has embraced the system and is already planning some interesting programming using Vokle, which is still in Beta mode, so stay tuned for that.
What’s beautiful about the technology is that anyone’s question, text OR video, can appear live. In that way, the conversation really does mirror the kind of face to face communication you might have in someone’s living room, where you can see everyone’s facial expressions. At the same time, you ARE getting a window into someone else’s living space! Shant sounded like he was living in an aviary- or perhaps as a New Yorker I forgot that in some places bird calls outweigh the sound of construction and bus transmissions. We were also able to see and hear people’s dogs and babies, and in my case, the wall of books in my office was on display. Do I care if perfect strangers can analyze my selection of reading material? Should I edit my bookshelves? I guess I can always put up a curtain before the next broadcast.