World SciFi Convention Goes Full Virtual
All-volunteer tech team used RTS VLink as global intercom, coordinating hundreds of program events via a virtual Mission Control
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to go global, the organizers of CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, scheduled for late July in Wellington, New Zealand, were searching for an alternative to cancellation. Division Head for Technology Services, John Maizels, was already assembling a suite of publicly available tools like Zoom video and Discord chat rooms. But to stage a full virtual convention, they had to find a way to manage it with a globally distributed tech team.
“The key to operating as a team when you can’t see anybody is good communications,” says Maizels. “That meant finding an effective virtual intercom system. Looking at its flexibility and especially the fact that there is no limit to the number of users, VLink quickly became a critical element of the project.”
Maizels, a freelance broadcast engineer based in Sydney, Australia, consulted with Magna Systems & Engineering (Chatswood, NSW), which was already heavily involved in virtualized broadcast events. “When John asked about RTS VLink, we could confirm it was the best online intercom on the market,” says Lucas Böhm, product manager at Magna Group Australia. “It’s perfect for global applications because it’s platform agnostic and infinitely scalable. It’s a very powerful tool.”
RTS and CoNZealand agreed on a 30-seat VLink license. With it, Maizels developed a new concept called Mission Control, a virtual control room. Key elements included RTS VLink for backstage and production intercoms, along with a virtual production switcher called vMix. Both were “located” in an Amazon Web Services cloud, operating independently of all the public-facing events.
With its similarity to RTS digital matrix systems, Maizels learned the VLink basics quickly. He loved the software’s inclusive connectivity, working equally well on phones, tablets or desktops, regardless of operating system. “It felt familiar, yet had a lot of its own advantages,” he says. “I was extremely impressed at how seamlessly VLink could link literally hundreds of users around the world, most of them unfamiliar with pro intercoms. But VLink is pretty intuitive, so people picked up on it very quickly.”
During prime hours, virtual CoNZealand ran 15 to 20 program events at all times, simultaneously preparing the next hour’s schedule. In addition to panel discussions and presentations via Zoom, there were also virtualised renditions of the exhibit hall, art show, fan tables, parties, bars and cafes – all monitored via VLink.
Another challenge was presenting the traditional major events. These included the opening and closing ceremonies; Masquerade; and two award shows including the Hugo Awards, hosted live by author George R.R. Martin from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
RTS VLink was a key element in Hugo Awards preproduction. Using point-to-point mode, IFB audio for the far-flung participants could be transmitted directly from a VLink panel. “Hugo rehearsals really highlighted the flexibility of VLink. And I must say, it worked beautifully,” he reports.
Overall, the virtualized CoNZealand delivered an immersive 5-day experience, thanks to the creative planning and commitment of its all-volunteer global Tech Team. John Maizels credits RTS VLink as a critical tool in making it a success.
“We asked VLink to do two primary things. First, run Mission Control, then support the broadcast process,” explains Maizels. “I’m pleased to report that VLink did everything we needed it to. I would definitely use it again.”