Dossier 8: Hybrid events

Sharing Hybrid #02: the first hybrid experiments

It’s mid-September. The corona measures are loosening up and cultural institutions can slowly open their physical doors to the public again. Of course, the cultural sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, but the need for digitisation has also created new opportunities. With thousands of viewers for live streamed theatre and museums that virtually open their doors to guide tours for students throughout the country, the cultural sector can no longer leave the internet unused. By offering programs both physically and online, you can reach more audiences and make your program more accessible. 

But such hybrid programming is a challenge. How do you address a physical and virtual audience at the same time? Should the physical and virtual experience be the same? How do you ensure a fruitful and meaningful exchange between both audiences? Sharing Hybrid are sessions that bring together a number of people working in the cultural sector in which we exchange knowledge and experience about online and hybrid events. In this second session we share our experiences with our first hybrid events. 

It is valuable if the online experience is a unique experience 

One hybrid experiment we discussed worked with a buddy system: every physical visitor guided a virtual visitor through an exhibition via their smartphone. For some virtual visitors it was valuable that they saw the exhibition through the eyes of their physical buddy. Physical buddies even described their feelings about certain artworks or the atmosphere and smell of the space. In this way, virtual visitors saw the exhibition in a way they would never see it themselves—through the eyes and physical experience of someone else. It was therefore not a problem that virtual visitors didn’t see the artworks properly, due to the poor audio and video quality of the smartphone. 

Awkwardness isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Linking physical and virtual visitors directly, without them knowing each other, can be a bit awkward. But this discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can also be exciting  to be paired up with someone you’ve never met Moreover, it is good to realise that a physical event also has many awkward moments. 

Mixing physical and virtual speakers works well and feels natural 

For the experience of the physical audience, it doesn’t make a difference when there are physical and virtual speakers speaking at an event. This is true even if there are more virtual than physical speakers. The variety in formats is good. This offers a lot of potential for cultural organisations. Programming international speakers can make a program stronger, and inviting them virtually is more sustainable. 

A challenge: how do you make the experience for the physical and virtual visitor equal? 

For a hybrid event, you should not just directly transmit the physical program to virtual visitors, but also think about how virtual visitors can give their contribution or input. In the buddy system we talked about during this session, physical visitors were responsible for the virtual visitors’ experience, and virtual visitors were dependent on their physical buddies. It’s interesting to see how this exchange could have been more of a reciprocal collaboration. For example: during the guided tour of the exhibition the artworks can be seen physically, but the description texts and background information can only be read online. 

Double check the technique in advance 

When you’re organising an event where speakers and audience are present both physically and virtually, where they give a presentation with sound, and where they need to be able to talk to a moderator who is physically present, there are a lot of different audio outputs and inputs. It is good to check all of these in advance. But even if you do, things can go wrong, and they probably will, so stay calm and be prepared to fill the space (maybe with quiz questions) while the audio gets fixed. 

Show virtual visitors where their perspective comes from 

We tend to show only the content (the speakers, the exhibition, etc.) to virtual visitors, but for their orientation it is also important to see the context: how is their perspective put into place? How is it filmed? For example, an exhibition space that worked with robot tour guides first showed virtual visitors the robot tour guide through a mirror, before starting the tour. 

How would an experimental approach work with a different target group? 

We are aware that the target audience with whom we do these experiments—even if they feel uncomfortable at times—are open to these kinds of interactions. It would be interesting to explore how such live experiments would be experienced by a very different, maybe more corporate, audience. Experience in the group shows that it is more difficult to get them to come along with the experiment and get them out of their comfort-zone. Although these experiments might be a big step for a wider audience, it is important to see how the experiments we undertake in the cultural sector can expand beyond it. 

Involve the physical space of virtual visitors at your event 

Research shows that when people watch something on television, their home environment is essential. If we want exciting hybrid live events, it’s important to involve the physical space of the virtual visitors. For example, you can instruct the audience to go for a walk during the break, grab a drink, or do something else physical. If you ask them to take a picture and share it afterwards, you can get a nice glimpse of the environments that everyone is looking from. 

Chatting during presentations adds value 

An advantage of online events is that visitors can chat about the topic being discussed, or exchange information, during a lecture. During the event with the buddy system, the physical and virtual visitors were also chatting with each other during the presentations, and this was experienced as pleasant. Visitors talked together about what a speaker was saying and sometimes a question rolled out of this conversation. Some visitors liked to first discuss the question they wanted to ask with their buddy.

Featured image is a visualisation of ‘hybrid spaces’ by AI VQGAN+CLIP