Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Some ideas for running a conference

Firstly for smooth running of the presentations it would be ideal if laptops were provided for displaying all presentations (obviously this wouldn't work for live software demos but it would work well for the slide-show
presentations). Such laptops need to be tested with the presentation files that will be used for the talks (or pre-release versions that are produced in the same formats). It's a common problem that the laptops owned by the speakers will have problems connecting to the projectors used at the conference which can waste time and give a low quality display. Another common problem is that laptops owned by the conference often have different versions of the software used for the slides which renders them differently, the classic example of this is OpenOffice 1.x and 2.x which render presentations differently such that using the wrong one results in some text being off-screen.

The easy solution to this is for the conference organizers to provide laptops that have multiple boot options for different distributions. Any laptop manufactured in the last 8 years will have enough disk space for the
latest release of Debian and the last few Fedora releases. As such machines won't be on a public network there's no need to apply security updates and therefore a machine can be used at conferences in successive years, a 400MHz laptop with 384M of RAM is quite adequate for this purpose while also being so small that it will sell cheaply.

A slightly better solution would be to have laptops running Xen. It's not difficult to set up Xephyr in fullscreen mode to connect to a Xen image, you could have several Xen instances running with NFS file sharing so that the speaker could quickly test out several distributions to determine which one gives the best display of their notes. This would also allow speakers to bring their own Xen images.

This is especially important if you want to run lightning talks, when there is only 5 minutes allocated for a talk you can't afford to waste 2 minutes in setting up a presentation!

In other news Dean Wilson gave my talk yesterday a positive review.


Ean Schuessler said...

How about if people ran a VNC server on their laptop? You could then even set up a wireless network and switch between people sitting for the lightning talks. A web based app could be provided for signing up that lets you enter the information about your talk and detects the VNC running on your machine. You could also provide a way for people in the lightning talk to wirelessly vote on which talk to do next if they have a wireless device.

Abe said...

This is a common problem with all windows/linux laptops. You will be surprised that OSX/macs work 99.9% of the time when plugged into any display device. It autodectects and JUST WORKS. Linux needs to catch up in this department. The major problem is the disparate range of hardware and video drivers/OS video setup.

Cheers, Abe.

Michael said...

Sounds like a volunteer for LCA2008.

David Adam said...

Having run IT and AV for a large conference, providing laptops is always a really good idea. People will still want to use their own laptops, and you have to be very firm about it. It would be virtually impossible at LCA though, because every single speaker uses a different presentation system. jdub types `make` to start his talks!

You could try and use Xen or multiboot, but as soon as you do anything complicated like that - anything at all - you're wasting your time. It isn't worth the effort to set up and maintain and your energy will be required and appreciated elsewhere, guaranteed.

etbe said...

Ean: VNC is an interesting idea. Not sure how well it would work, I'll have to try it some time.

Abe: I would not be surprised at all, I've been using a Mac 40 hours a week for the last couple of months and have two monitors on my desk.

Michael: yes I'm prepared to help out with LCA2008 in this regard.

David: I'm happy to allow the really smart people a choice. But someone who doesn't feel that they are a total expert should be strongly encouraged to use what is provided for them. Most people give presentations in OpenOffice.

I don't think that multi-boot is a waste of time. I have been taking a laptop with FC4 and FC5 in a dual-boot config to most LUG meetings recently just so I can help out if someone gets stuck.

Thijs said...

You could require people to have PDF slides to solve the problem of different Office versions. These are easily created with many presentation tools.

Marius said...

Rebooting my 2-year old Thinkpad takes about two minutes. I do not think rebooting into several alternative distributions to see which one works best is a reasonable solution. Unless you have a couple of laptops and use one for testing while the other is used to show a different presentation.

The Xen solution is interesting, if the organizers have the time and experience to make it work.

A simple low-tech solution would be to require the speakers to come up during a break and either make sure their laptops work with the projector, or make sure their slides can be shown on the organisers' laptop. Converting the presentation to a PDF might be a solution to OpenOffice incompatibilities.

Jiri said...

An alternate solution might be to put a projector (or other screen with similar characteristics) in the green room for speakers to test with.

A different set of features - works for demos, not so much for lightning talks...