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Virtual Book Signings

How to Be There Virtually, Or Be Square

by Nitrozac and Snaggy, authors of The Best of The Joy of Tech
04/13/2004

Beam us out Scotty!

Imagine attending a busy high-tech conference in California, thousands of miles from your home, then breaking for lunch in your own kitchen. Later that day, you meet fans at a New York City bookstore, on the opposite side of the country, to sign copies of your latest book. Minutes after the signing, you retire to the comfort of your own bed... after all, you have to make an appearance in London in a few hours. No, you haven't discovered teleportation, you are traveling via video conference!

With devices like Apple's iSight and iChat AV software, a space/time itinerary like the above scenario is possible. The technology is readily available, easy to configure, and a lot less expensive than airfare and accommodations.

In this article, we aim to turn you from a jet-setter into a Net-setter, but it's not so much a how-to as a what-we-do. By explaining how we use simple AV setups in our careers as authors--for what we call "virtual book signings"--we hope to spark up some ideas about how video-conferencing can enhance your own life, either for pleasure, or for making your business a pleasure. We'll be focusing on the iSight and iChat AV, but this information could also be applied to almost any other web camera, video cameras, and video conferencing software.

So step up on the transporter and prepare to energize!

A virtual what?

Now, you may be asking yourself, what the heck is a "virtual book signing"? Don't worry, it's not some kind of pantomime performance art that we captivate our imaginary friends with. Instead, it is an online event where fans can have their The Best of the Joy of Tech books signed and customized by us, in cases where we cannot make it physically to the fans.

Snaggy and Nitrozac
Snaggy signs a Joy of Tech book, while Nitrozac chats online with the happy new JoT book owner.

It works like a traditional author signing held at a bookstore or at a conference, only instead of interacting with the folks in person, we are thousands of miles away at our home in Canada. We meet them virtually, either via webcam, over IRC, or via iChat AV's two-way video communications. After exchanging smiles and laughs, and asking what they would like us to sign in their book, we autograph a digital file using a Wacom pen and tablet. This customized signature file is then delivered to them immediately via iChat or email, where it can then be printed onto label paper and pasted into their book.

book signing fileAn example of one of our digital signature files. (We bet you didn't realize there would be go-go girls and aliens at a geek convention.)

In cases where people have purchased a book via our web store, we sign a book located at our end of the connection. They can then watch as we sign it, and afterwards, we hold it up to the camera for them to see. A week or so later their book will arrive in the mail for them to enjoy.

So, for us, living as we do in the wilds of west coast British Columbia, it is a fantastic way to meet with fans and colleagues, and to make personal connections that we would otherwise be unable to do. For the fans, it is a fun way to have their books signed and personally inscripted. Their book becomes a memento of a pleasantly geeky experience that they can share at the watercooler, on their blog, or in their favorite forums.

Now if you're a creative type, you may already be thinking how this technology could be applied to other situations and events, both for the chance to connect with friends and family around the world, or perhaps for use in your own business.

For instance, you may know someone who is in the hospital and needs cheering up, but you can't visit as often as you'd like, or you live on the other side of the country. A simple webcam feed of you or their favorite view might be just the ticket to them feeling better. Or, you may be holding a wedding, and you see an AV broadcast as an opportunity to share the celebration with more people than you could traditionally. Perhaps even use it as a way to keep those long lost relatives from showing up in person!

Another example. You may be nervous about leaving your child for the first time back home with the babysitter. No problem; set up a webcam or a couple of iChat accounts, then just log in from the office or an Internet cafe and check that everything is OK.

And remember, you don't always have to broadcast live video from a camera; you can just as easily transmit previously recorded material. By feeding the signal from your camcorder or VCR to your webcam software, suddenly you'll be broadcasting your child's birthday party to the grandparents who couldn't make it. Of course, keep this in mind when viewing your babysitter cam... your babysitter may be playing a game of Spy vs. Spy with you.

Joy of tech comic
When geeks go bad: using the technology for slacking.

The virtual benefits

Although there is nothing like actually being there, attending an event virtually does have its advantages. For authors who reside in far off distant lands like Canada, Australia, or Brooklyn, it gives them a chance to share in a bit of the excitement of a conference, without actually having to go to it. This means saving the costs of transportation and accommodation, and since you can travel virtually from your home or office with all the associated comforts and familiar surroundings, it also tends to be a lot less stressful than an actual trip. (Of course, that depends on how your home or office life is doing. You may want to get away!)

Traveling virtually is also a perfect solution for your typical agoraphobic and anxiety-filled author. No more fear of flying, lost luggage, hotels from hell, the crush of crazed and rabid fans, or that dread of visiting Buffalo in the winter. For those who lean towards catastrophic thoughts, it is reassuring to know that, to date, there hasn't been one recorded case of a virtual traveler suffering physical injuries from an iChat AV crash. Egos may have been bruised, and some may be suffering post-traumatic kernel-panic stress perhaps, but all in all, the safety record is spotless.

It's also a chance to be an innovator, someone who uses new technologies in fresh ways. You will always have those bleeding-edge risks, but it's far more likely you'll wind up with a fun event, meet some happy family, friends, or fans you otherwise wouldn't have been able to see ... perhaps even create something that is newsworthy in itself.

And best of all, people love it. The virtual experience is a really fun thing to participate in. We find most folks are enthralled with the technology and think it's "so cool". Everyone whom we've talked to during one of our virtual book signings has had huge smiles on their faces and clearly enjoyed the experience as much as we did. (In fact, since most of these folks are pretty geeky, we suspect that they are more enthralled by the technology in front of them than by their favorite authors.)

Virtual, lite

OK, let's go over a few of the ways we set up virtual events, starting with the simplest. Say you have an event you'd like to share with people who can't make it; it can be anything: a wedding, a graduation, a book signing ... your cat sleeping. The easiest way to do that is by using a passive one-way system like a webcam.

Using a simple camera and some software, you can broadcast a constantly updating image to a web site, where the folks that cannot make it to your real-life event can watch. Sound boring? Maybe, but it can also be an extremely effective and powerful way to share your moment.

For instance, a few summers ago we lived on the oceanfront, and our webcam pointed out over the beach to the Pacific Ocean. The local neighborhood soon discovered our webcam, and would use it to communicate with their friends and family in far off corners of the world. Having previously sent their friends the URL to our webcam, and arranged a time in advance, they would then walk on the beach in front of our house and wave to their family. It was a little unnerving having people wave at our house all the time, but it was also fascinating in a social-experiment kind of way, especially since these folks had figured out a way to piggyback their personal communications onto our signal. We also discovered that area fishermen and windsurfers were using our webcam to check up on the local sea conditions, which are legendary for changing dramatically in a short time. (We eventually moved, and took our webcam with us, leaving many sad virtual faces out there on that beach.)

Now, if you add text messaging to that simple webcam setup, the experience becomes even more powerful. The porn industry has known for years how compelling this can be; now you can put that technology to work in kinder, gentler, less naked ways. Your friends can view your event on a web page, and at the same time, communicate with you via IRC or by instant messaging.

This is how we started out with virtual events (no, not in the porn industry!). Our webcam would broadcast images of our signings while we chatted with fans in our IRC channel. We set up a table as if we were at a real book signing, with the camera positioned where fans would be standing as if they were in front of our table ready to get their book signed.

waiting for snaggy
Is Snaggy still signing that book?

We use a pad of paper to keep viewers informed of whose book we're signing, and to directly address folks we know are not currently on IRC. Screenshots are saved and later posted up on the web for those who couldn't make it to the virtual event.

signing Adam's bookAs Nitrozac signs a book for Adam Engst, Snaggy utilizes Advanced Note Pad TechnologyTM to transmit a tidbit of his own.

Timbits
After signing, we hold up the book so that the inscription can seen. (In case you didn't know, Timbits are a Canadian delicacy.

The great thing about the webcam broadcast is its ubiquity. The feed can be made available to anyone with an Internet connection, and your event can be as private or as public as you desire. It can be viewable by one person, or with a bit of publicity, it can be seen by thousands of people in different locations all around the world. We won't go into detail about how to set up a webcam, as that information is readily available on the web, but if you haven't set one up yet, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised how easy it is.

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