A virtual-event hobby: desktop Easter eggs

This week involved two panels I recorded from my desk, which made it like a great many weeks since February of 2020. But the specifics of my appearances Thursday and Friday represented a serious advance overall compared to the virtual-panel game I brought last March–and not just because my camera setup is now much less crummy.

My earliest upgrade was to improve the art on the wall visible behind me when I sit facing the windows for optimal lighting. Meaning, I filled a spot I’d left open by framing a cue sheet from one of the century rides I completed as a younger cyclist. That continues to offer the bonus of reminding me that difficult things are doable with enough practice, time, and rest stops that involve volunteers handing you bagels.

It took me longer to realize that my usual camera angle–a phone and then a webcam mounted on a tripod between the windows and me–left space on my desk to fill with something besides the vintage Bell System Trimline phone I keep parked there (but no longer have plugged into our VoIP service, because having robocalls interrupt an interview is no good).

First, I realized that if I was going to be talking about information security, I should leave the printed program from 2019’s DEF CON hacker conference resting against the wall behind me as a visual credential. Then I figured that parking a spare Rubik’s Cube in front of that would provide a little visual contrast and confirm that I’m a child of the ’80s. My service as an election officer last year left me with a badge from working the general election, and that seemed like another good totem to leave visible for anyone doubting my civic dedication. Still later, I decided that I couldn’t possibly hide the ThinkGeek Millennium Falcon multi-tool kit (don’t ask, just covet) that my brother gave me years ago.

Because I am slow, I eventually further thought that I could spotlight event-specific flair. For example, in a virtual panel about cruise-ship apps, I arranged a set of my dad’s old passports on that corner of the desk. An interview of a Major League Baseball executive gave me an excuse to park a Livan Hernandez bobblehead on the desk. I was tempted to display a pair of drumsticks I got as a conference souvenir years ago for the panel I recorded Friday morning with a music-app executive–but I didn’t want to suggest skills I lack, so I broke out the sticks for the sound check before that recording.

I hope some of you have enjoyed seeing these little tchotchkes, but if not at least they’ve injected a little variety to my own virtual-panel routine. I’ll enjoy that while it lasts, because at some point–that’s now looking like the third quarter of this year–I will go back to moderating in-person panels and will have to return to hoping anybody in the room notices the panel socks I’m wearing.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.