Oct 23, 2020 | The First Ever Virtual TEDx Has Concluded!

A Long Way From the First TED Event to the First Virtual TEDx

Some ideas are worth spreading. With that thought in mind, in 1984, Marry Marks and Richard Saul Wurman found TED Conferences LLC. “TED” stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.” In 1990, TED launched the annual conferences in Long Beach, California (since 2014 in Vancouver, Canada) that have become a household brand over the last 30 years. Now, after 30 years, the first virtual TEDx event has concluded in the small city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

What’s the secret behind the success? Perhaps, the simplicity of the design: one speaker, standing alone in front of the crowd, and explaining their concept using a minimal amount of audiovisual materials and within the time frame of 18 minutes. Plus, a beam of light on the speaker and the red-black background gives a sense of importance and impact.

In the era of the internet, the footage from TED events has become so popular online that today, the non-profit spin-off conferences, known as TEDx, started appearing all around the world. The maternal TED team takes care of the quality of events, therefore, to be able to organize TEDx in your city, you need to fulfill a long list of criteria and get a special license from the TED organization.

But, in the times of the corona crisis, the evolution of TED must go on. TED(x) events have now moved online and are usually organized as a combination of online and on-site talks. However, can this evolution be pushed even further? Yes, it can.

How to Organize a Virtual TEDx Event?

In a recent event, TEDx organized here in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, all the speakers presented on stage full of people. Yet, since we have the corona, a room full of people is forbidden! How was this possible then?

Well, this is when the Virtual Reality (VR) comes into play. VR is a technology that allows for simulating new experiences. VR setup involves headsets and software to create and project new environments. These environments include images, sounds, and other sensations that simulate the subject’s presence in a virtual environment. In particular, they can create a feeling of standing on stage speaking to hundreds of spectators.

Having this in mind, in May 2020, Daniel van der Waals, the founder of Beemup — a Utrecht-based startup building a new platform to live-stream ultra-realistic virtual conferences — came to the idea of organizing the first virtual TEDx event. He got down to building the team around the event, and in July 2020, he reached out to Aleksandr Stommels, a veteran of organizing TEDx events in the Netherlands. After leading TEDxAmsterdamED School events project in 2017 to promote science at schools, and TEDx Youth event in 2018/2019 to promote entrepreneurship, sustainability and social engagement among undergraduate students, Aleksandr received yet another license from TED — this time to organize one of the events in the TEDx Countdown. This series of online TEDx events were scheduled for Saturday, October 10th, 2020 in multiple cities around the world, and was dedicated to the environment and ecology as the overarching topics. Aleksandr joined forces with Daniel and together, they proposed the first-ever, full-fledged virtual TEDx, dedicated to the topic of CO2 emission.

Creating Professional Avatars

So, how does this work? Well, to have a representation in the virtual world, you’ll need an avatar: a virtual persona who looks just like you. In Beemup, this is achieved by taking photos of the speaker’s face from multiple angles and converting them into a 3D-model of the speaker’s head. The speaker’s height is taken for reference to scale the silhouette on the virtual stage, and one of the few standard body-types is used to represent the corpus and limbs. Then, little details such as hair, are manually added to the avatar at the end. The process of creating an avatar is complex and can take as long as three days, but the good news is: once the avatar is developed for you and you have a headset to project the virtual reality onto your visual field, you can give an unlimited number of online on-stage talks from anywhere in the world. Then, when the time comes, you need to find a comfortable space with no sunlight, put the headset on, and viola! — you stand on stage in a room full of people.

Implications of the Virtual TEDx

What are the wider implications of this project? Well, there are a few different reasons to believe that this is a milestone much more important than just a geeky twist to the legendary TED formula. First of all, we have a lockdown, and in these conditions, arranging traditional conferences is not possible. VR gives the speakers an invaluable experience of standing on stage despite these external conditions. 

It’s also a chance for beginning speakers and for people with social anxiety and other cognitive disabilities — you no longer need to expose yourself to the real crowd to be able to put yourself out there and give a public talk. In the future, anyone will have this opportunity to become a renowned public speaker as Beemup is building a platform that allows for creating a personal avatar and renting the professional headset in a subscription model.

Furthermore, there is the ecological aspect, nomen omen related to the CO2 emission: the carbon footprint. The recently stirred the discussion about the downsides of organizing international conferences, and their impact on the environment. International conferences are not only costly but also leave a non-redeemable trace in the Earth’s atmosphere. Virtual systems are not only cheaper but also greener and more sustainable.

The Roadmap Down the Line

TEDxNijmegen Countdown was a big success, and the recordings from the talks will appear on the official TED website in mid-November. It has already become clear that other, similar events will follow. Namely, multiple TEDx teams from all around the globe, including Hawaii, Japan, Turkey, or Germany, consider organizing a TEDx event in the same system at their side. 

It also seems that the technology can be further improved so that in the future, monitoring the speakers’ position using only hand controllers (and without the sensors around the body) will be possible. If you are interested in organizing a TEDx event using VR technology in your city, please contact Daniel van der Waals or Aleksandr Stommels for more details.

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Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2020). The First Ever Virtual Tedx Has Concluded! Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/the-first-ever-virtual-tedx-has-concluded/

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