Special Section: Pharma Meetings

Apr 01, 2011
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

As an alternative to an in-person conference, Merck sought to reduce or eliminate travel costs without adversely affecting the knowledge transfer that is crucial to a sucessful poster session. (GETTY IMAGES / CHAD BAKER)
Poster sessions in the real world are an important way for pharma companies to quickly and efficiently advertise their research. Unlike the fast pace of a slide show or verbal presentation, a poster session allows participants to study and restudy the information and discuss it. And while sessions can be interesting, engaging, and often valuable, poster sessions are rarely considered cool or fun. Not so, however, the virtual symposium and interactive poster session mounted last fall by Merck in collaboration with ProtonMedia.

Case History: Merck
Merck's use of a 3-D virtual world to hold a poster session was an industry first. And while attendees reported it was indeed fun, engaging, and cool, that was not Merck's business objective. What it was looking for was an opportunity to hold a poster session that accelerated knowledge transfer and engagement at less cost (see sidebar).

Online pharma meetings have grown 63 percent from May 2006 to May 2010, including teleconference, videoconference, and telepresence services, according to SDI Health. When it came to holding a poster session online, however, Merck was looking to recreate the experience of being physically present at the event—without actually being there—along with the means to measure the outcomes of the session.

Given the confidential nature of the information being presented and discussed, Merck also needed a private environment that could be secured behind the company's firewall and be compliant as well. Reminiscent of Second Life, but deployed within the company, ProtonMedia worked with Merck to create a virtual environment platform. Merck wanted to simulate the look and feel of an actual symposium exterior and interior with precision, from the floor plan and rooms, down to the furniture, wall coverings, and lighting.

The layout included an entrance hall, two conference halls where up to 10 posters could be presented to 50 people, and eight discussion rooms. Dozens of avatars were created for scientists to use as their digital alter egos for interacting in the space.

Online Event Growth
Merck believed it was crucial to be able to move about the space with ease and simplicity. A 3-D virtual technology was created to allow the participants to manipulate their avatars to walk using the arrow keys on their keyboards, they could click on doorways to pass through rooms, and click on chairs to sit down. Communication using voice was employed by pressing the F12 key on their keyboard. They could also input text using the familiar approach of chat and instant messaging. But there was one important difference: All conversations were able to be logged to create an audit trail for compliance purposes.

Participants could walk up to any presenter and listen to their presentation. If they wanted to talk to the presenter or another attendee, all they had to do was walk inside the blue circle that surrounded them. This indicated they had entered their conversation zone, and could hear and be heard by others within it. Scientists could also have side conversations by entering private rooms.

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