Remote seminar – result of first experiment

I was invited by Agilenetið to come to Iceland and do a talk. That didn’t fit my travel schedule, so we instead decided to do an experimental “remote seminar”. That is, with me on a video link instead of physically in Iceland. I’ve done webinars before, and usually miss the interactivity. I wanted it to “feel” like I was there, discussing and interacting with the participants.

Here’s what we learned:

To build a feeling of presence, we would need:

  • A two-way video/audio link, so me & the audience can see and hear each other. Ideally people in the audience should be able to just speak up, without having a microphone.
  • A way to show slides, and point at things on the slide.
  • A whiteboard or something equivalent, so I can draw while explaining things.
  • Ideally the participants should be able to see at the same time as the thing I’m showing (whiteboard or slide).
We did some experimentation the day before the seminar, and decided to use Google Hangout, with Skype as backup. Both support video, audio, and screensharing. Via screensharing I would display powerpoint slides, and for whiteboard we would use ArtRage (a drawing app) together with my Intuos 5 drawing table.
It looked like we got it working during the trial run, but during the seminar we immediately noticed that it wasn’t working. Whenever I started sharing my screen, the audio would get really choppy. So we switched from Google Hangout to Skype but, suprisingly, Skype had the same problem.
After some wild experimentation (while audience waited politely…) we found a surprising solution. We used Skype for audio, and Hangout for screensharing (or was it the other way around?), and no video for the most part. That worked much bettter (minor audio hickups sometimes, but temporary only). I thought the problem was due to my not-too-stable internet connection at home (ADSL 8Mb/1Mb). But that doesn’t explain how it could work better when using two different apps. In fact, that implies some sort of issue with the internal threading/streaming code in google hangout AND skype. Weird.
Anyway once we got over the initial difficulties (probably only 5 minutes, but it felt much longer) I did the seminar as planned, talking and showing slides and pointing at things, and drawing on the board. A minor detail is that I wasn’t able to use Powerpoint in presentation mode with Google Hangout, so no fullscreen with animations. Too bad but no big deal.
A positive surprise was the whiteboard simulation using ArtRage + the drawing tablet. Despite one-way video (I could see them, while they only saw my whiteboard) it was a hit! People asked questions and we had discussions while I drew stuff on the tablet. Felt very interactive and fun. Would have been even better if the participants could draw too, but then that rarely happens during physical seminars anyway so it didn’t feel so important.
All in all it was a successful event (rated 9/10 by the participants) despite the technical issues. We had fun and learned a lot. Next time I try this I’ll do it from the Crisp office instead (better internet connection), and see if it makes a difference. If it wasn’t for the stability issues, both Skype and Hangout felt like good tools. They have very different models for screensharing. Skype shares the whole desktop, while in hangout you choose which specific window/app to share. Both models have advantages & disadvantages. From my limited experience so far I think I like hangout a bit better, and will default to that next time.
BTW the seminar was about Lean from the Trenches – how to scale projects using Kanban. Here are the slides.
Thanks Logi Helgu for organizing this! Here is his blog entry about this.

4 responses on “Remote seminar – result of first experiment

  1. It didn’t look so good at the beginning when neither app worked and then I remembered having used one app for audio while playing an online game with friends some 10 years ago so thank experience payed off for our session 😉

    The whiteboard (ArtRage) was excellent. To have the participants able to draw to is a really interesting idea, I’d love to hear from that if you find a way..or take part 😉

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience Henrik. I am almost ready to declare Skype to be a bloatware. I have had success with Teamviewer before. It is really light weight and works well through crappy connections. Good luck with your next remote session!

  3. They should have also used the SkypeComm module. It enables remote interaction with a robot through a Skype session.

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