The Global Conference Is Real

Microsoft wanted PDC10 to be the best-attended developer conference in its history, with attendees representing a truly global developer community. It wanted to deliver an immersive and engaging online experience that met and exceeded the onsite experience. And it wanted to accomplish this with current Microsoft technology, demonstrating the capabilities of that technology to deliver highly innovative and even unprecedented solutions, and to do so cost effectively.

Microsoft accomplished all of these aims with the PDC10 player and application.

The Limits of Traditional Conferencing

Just about everything that used to be done in person—such as buying consumer goods or industrial supplies, chatting with friends or collaborating with colleagues, watching movies or training for a new job—seems to happen increasingly online. But there are exceptions.

Business and industry events and conferences are still largely, if not entirely, onsite affairs. True, “conferencing” is a standard component of business technology, but such conferencing is mostly confined to bringing together a limited number of people, at a limited number of endpoints, for peer-to-peer audio, video, and web content. Also, some “virtual conferencing” solutions put organizers and attendees into the equivalent of a virtual world, forcing them to deal with distractions from the purpose of their online gathering. Today’s conferencing solutions aren’t designed to support the thousands of people who attend large-scale business conferences. They don’t provide the interactivity that is a hallmark of such meetings. They can’t juggle the simultaneous sessions that comprise these conferences. And they certainly can’t do all of this at the same time, in real time, for conference participants located anywhere around the world.

So, when Microsoft needed a conferencing solution, it set out to build one that overcame these limitations.

Microsoft had several motivations for its move into unprecedented, large-scale virtual conferencing. First, it wanted to multiply the impact of its Professional Developer Conference (PDC). The PDC is the company’s periodic opportunity to demonstrate and evangelize Microsoft platforms and technologies that help developers to be successful building their own solutions. That event typically was attended by 5,000 to 7,000 developers, mostly from the United States, with significant representation from around the world.

Perhaps tens or scores of thousands of others would have liked to attend, but were prevented by the increasing costs of travel and lodging, particularly in a difficult economy, and by the limit that Microsoft had to put on attendance. The conference was typically held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, to accommodate the several thousand attendees. But that also limited the participation of Microsoft speakers, who had to make the time to travel to Los Angeles and back, and it limited the interaction of attendees with Microsoft personnel.

New Vision, New Technology

For PDC10, the PDC held at the end of October 2010, Microsoft decided to address these concerns, and more, by taking the conference onto the Internet. An onsite conference would still be held, limited to 1,000 attendees and conducted on the Microsoft campus. But this would be secondary to the online conference, which would be the focus of Microsoft activity. A virtual conference would immediately lift the limit on attendees, allowing any developer anywhere to attend, merely for the price of an Internet connection.

But it would do more. Beyond providing traditional “talking heads” and linear video that would replicate a traditional conference experience, Microsoft wanted the virtual conference to enrich and surpass that experience with capabilities that only an online version might offer, capabilities that Microsoft believed had not been offered previously. The company’s goal was to raise the bar for online conferences beyond anything that people had seen on the web before. Some of the ways in which Microsoft hoped to achieve this were the following:

  • High-quality integration of multiple high-definition video streams, content streams, and parallel video tracks
  • Multiple simultaneous audio translations from English into French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, plus live closed-captioning in English
  • Unprecedented online interaction via an integrated Twitter client, live global question and answer, real-time polling, and dynamic scheduling

The global conferencing solution that Microsoft envisioned would also differ from traditional solutions in subtle ways. Traditional conferencing solutions generally require participants to be authenticated. The virtual PDC solution, in contrast, would enable anyone, anywhere to access conference content anonymously, and to interact with that content in real time. Presenters would be able to modify their presentations—again, in real time—based on direct, global feedback during their sessions. They could answer far more questions from the global audience than could ever have been answered before. And attendees would be able to share video content and chat with other attendees, in ways that reflect traditional conference conversations.

Beyond addressing the needs of PDC attendees, the online conference solution would also demonstrate the viability, and desirability, of using Microsoft technologies for a level of communication, education, and interaction that had never, as near as company executives could tell, been attempted before.

Technology, until recently, had been insufficient to realize this vision. Within the last few years, that’s changed, with the introduction and maturity of the Microsoft Silverlight 4 platform and Silverlight Media Framework 2, Internet Information Services (IIS) Media Services with Smooth Streaming, and the Windows Azure cloud-computing platform and its Windows Azure content delivery network (CDN).

Was Microsoft prepared for the sheer global scope and scalability required for the envisioned solution? Microsoft had powered NBC Sunday Night Football (NFL Experience), the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2010 Winter Olympics, March Madness 2009 and 2011, and the 2010 Wimbledon tournament on the web. Microsoft executives believed they were ready for PDC10.

And they were right. The multifaceted solution that eventually achieved all of these aims consisted of the following:

  • A sophisticated, interactive video player and conference application
  • Multiple high-definition video feeds managed from a network operations center
  • Multiple content delivery networks to give the conference global reach

This white paper describes these components and how they worked together to realize the unprecedented vision of a rich, live, large-scale online conference. The potential applications of this solution to global needs other than annual Microsoft PDC conferences should be apparent to all major corporations and organizations.

The Conference Player and Application

The core of the PDC10 virtual conference solution was the conference player and application, which served all the conference content (speakers’ audio and video, slide decks and demonstrations, audio translations and closed captioning, schedule information, and video on demand) and interactive features (polling, question and answer, in-conference tweeting), and provided a variety of ways to navigate through, view, and share content. The player and application, as well as an application for Windows Phone 7, was designed and built for Microsoft by Vertigo, an award-winning design and development firm.

Read the full whitepaper…

You can discuss this article using the adjacent Facebook talkback.

For technical questions please visit our discussion forums, where we have a vibrant community of developers like you, as well as Microsoft engineers who are ready to answer your questions!