NASA Astrobiology Institute ‘Removes Walls’ for Virtual Conference

Dale Cruikshank and David Des Marais at NASA Ames Research Center talk to George Cody at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and other videoconferencing rooms at research sites across the countryA virtual "Workshop Without Walls" conference hosted last week by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) drew more than 170 registrants from 21 states and 16 foreign countries.

Entitled "The Organic Continuum from the Interstellar Medium to the Early Earth," the two-day workshop held March 11-12, 2010 was organized by George Cody, leader of the NAI's Carnegie Institution of Washington team and Doug Whittet, leader of the NAI’s team at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York.

Among the countries represented at the workshop were Canada, Mexico, six western European nations, Ukraine, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay.

"The Workshop was in many ways a realization of the original vision of the virtual institute,"said Carl Pilcher, director of the NAI. "When the NAI began 12 years ago, we envisioned scientists interacting seamlessly at a distance. But the technology and the culture weren't ready. Today the technology works beautifully, and people have come to see this as the wave of the future. This workshop demonstrated that the future has arrived."

A total of 33 scientific talks were presented during the workshop, with interactive question and answer capability provided for the participants at eight sites equipped with high definition video and audio, and streaming with real-time question submission through the Adobe Connect web interface.

"The advances in technology that made this meeting possible have been paralleled by remarkable developments in the research that drives the science," Whittet said. "The benefit in terms of scientific knowledge gained and dollars expended by participants is likely unprecedented," added Cody.

According to Cody, the conference was "an experiment." Most participants categorized their experience level with remote collaborative technologies as beginner or intermediate, and a few had no prior experience at all.

Despite this, participants reported the experiment was a great success. "I was not expecting to have the same intellectual experience as I normally do at conferences…but after this conference, I do have that same sense of having been to a "real" conference,” adding, "this was very fulfilling for me professionally," said one participant.

Locations of participants ranged from a conference room in a major city with high-speed connectivity and professional videoconferencing equipment, to a home office in a small town with a laptop and home-based Internet connection.

"Over the course of the conference, I actually came to be unaware of the conference as being at multiple venues,"Cody said, "…the difference that high definition, high band-width videoconferencing makes is remarkable. Clear face-to-face contact with no time lag in either visual or audio was the essential part. Evidently the difference between 100 feet and 3000 miles is not all that great."

NAI is preparing guidelines for those in the community who are interested in hosting such an event in the future. Information will be available shortly, but interested parties can contact Marco Boldt at NAI Central at any time,

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