Jan 182021
 

On Saturday evening, with a small group of friends from the Tanzkreis dance circle we were part of in Brussels 25 years ago, we had an experimental virtual dance party. The technical setup was based on a first attempt for the virtual New Year Party Kaberi and I hosted but, that time, we did more talking as friends joined from all over the world (from San Francisco in the West to Sydney in the East). We did not start dancing until well after midnight, by which time most of the friends who had joined had gone to bed!

For the virtual dance party yesterday, since most of us are still in lockdown 9 months on from my second virtual birthday party last April, everyone was at home on a Saturday evening. However, this is a group which really enjoys dancing, although we also had a lot of catching up to do.

Still, as many of us spend a lot of the week online these days, I was not sure how long our friends would be prepared to stay with us on a Saturday evening. In the event, with the help of a pause after about 1.5 hours when everyone left the Dance floor to go to different groups in the Bar/Terrace/Forest areas where different groups, we finished after over 3 hours, although a few of us carried on chatting afterwards. All of us had a lot of fun and we are now looking forward to our next virtual dance party.

Breakout room names: Dance floor, Bar, Terrace, Kitchen, Garden, Fountain, Forest, Quiet corner 1, Quiet corner 2, Quiet corner 3 & Quiet corner 4
The different areas of the virtual dance party

Preparation

Most of the preparation steps for the virtual birthday party apply for a virtual dance party. In addition … :

  1. I had set up a Zoom registration page to help us keep track of who would be joining and make sure that they received the connection details. I used the banner image below and a ‘logo’ image of Kaberi and me at the door of our apartment.
  2. I had prepared a number of different ‘areas’ within the virtual dance party using the breakout rooms feature of Zoom – see the list of different areas in the photo above. The idea was that everyone should be able to see who was in which area and to move around between the different areas (just as you would do in a real party in a physical space), whether they were connecting from a computer, tablet or smartphone. Note that this relies on a fairly recent feature of Zoom, so that everyone needs to have at least version 5.3.0 of Zoom installed.
  3. For the music, with the help of friends, I had created a Spotify playlist for the New Year Party which I used again here. I used the Pacemaker DJ app on my smartphone to analyse the pace of the tracks in the playlist and help me structure the playlist into a sequence which would avoid major speed changes.
  4. To share the sound from my smartphone, I used an HDMI adaptor for the smartphone, which allowed me to connect its audio and video to my ATEM Mini. That in turn was connected via a USB cable to my computer as an alternative video and audio source for my Zoom connection. So I was connected as ‘Obhi – DJ’ with video from my computer camera and audio from the ATEM Mini, having turned on the ‘original sound‘ to allow the clear audio to be shared, without Zoom’s default noise reduction.
  5. In our living room, I had connected our laptop to the Zoom session as ‘Obhi – Dance floor’ via a wired Internet connection. This provided the view of our living room which everyone in the ‘Dance floor’ would see. An HDMI connection from the laptop fed into our home theatre system, which provided us with the sound on the dance floor and projected the screen of the laptop onto our wall.
  6. A long HDMI cable extended to the middle of the living room so that I could reach the smartphone and change the sequence of the music or move onto the next track if I saw that people were not dancing so much to a track. To avoid overloading our wifi, the smartphone was connected to the mobile network.
  7. Kaberi was connected to the Zoom session on her tablet, which allowed both of us to use that to admit people from the waiting room. The latest version of Zoom allowed us to be alerted if someone was in the waiting room, even if we were not in the ‘main session’.
  8. All three of our Zoom connections (Obhi – DJ, Obhi – Dance floor and Kaberi) had the hosting powers.
  9. Obhi – DJ and Obhi – Dance floor needed to be in the ‘Dance floor’ breakout room for people to be able to hear the music. The reason for this double connection in the same room is that you cannot usually hear your own audio in a Zoom connection, to avoid feedback issues.
  10. On Kaberi’s smartphone, I used the ‘Discotainment’ feature of the iConnect Hue app to control the colour and intensity of the Philips Hue colour lights in our living room. It uses the microphone to pick up the sound peaks from the ‘Dance floor’ so that the lights can follow the beats of the music.
  11. I set up a virtual background image for the ‘Obhi – DJ’ connection so that there would not be a blank box on the screen when I was not sitting at my computer (which was most of the time!). So this is what the ‘Dance floor’ looked like before everyone joined.
The ‘Dance floor’ before the party guests joined

Invitation

  1. Everyone was invited at 8.30pm Central European Time, with less than 1 week’s notice. All of the friends we had invited were in the same time zone, connecting from different parts of Europe.
  2. I sent a short e-mail invitation to the friends to explain that this would be an experiment and including the link to the Zoom registration page I had set up. The registration page reduced the steps needed to launch and keep track of the invitation, compared to the invitation phase for my birthday party last year.
  3. Before the party started, I had sent some suggestions to those who had registered to join:

For this evening …
– remember to update to the latest version of Zoom, which you will need to move between the different areas of the party (dance floor, quiet corners, bar, terrace, …)
– set up your computer/mobile device so that you have enough space to dance without going outside the view of the camera but also so that the audio is loud enough
– you might want to connect the audio/video to a large-screen TV or projector

This video might give you an idea of what to expect … and how you would like to set up your connection and space.

On the day of the event

  1. Steps 4-11 of the ‘Preparation’ phase are mainly for the day of the event itself. Although the technical setup may sound complicated, so long as you have everything you need, it takes perhaps 1-2 hours to make and test all the connections.
  2. Make sure you are ready at least 30 minutes before the party is due to start (including possibly having a siesta!).
  3. Both Kaberi and I were in the main session to welcome our friends as they joined. We could then test their connections. [This is when we discovered that hardly anyone had updated to the latest version of Zoom so they could not move freely between the different areas! Still, at least we then knew they would need help to move around and adapted accordingly.]
  4. Keep an eye open for people arriving in the Waiting room, whom you will need to go back to the Main session to welcome. I was mainly doing that from my computer so that I could immediately assign them to wherever everyone else was. This is not so easy from a tablet or smartphone.
  5. Have fun!

My thanks to Kaberi and to all the friends who joined Saturday’s party and helped me to experiment with a virtual dance party. As we had found with last year’s virtual birthday party, it seems to be feasible to replicate the atmosphere and dynamics of a physical party online, even when all the guests are in lockdown in different places around the world. More generally, this could also be an interesting option for people who cannot go out so easily in the evenings, such as those caring for others at home or parents of young children.

Tanzkreis at 25 banner
May 072019
 

This year, my birthday was just after the Easter weekend. Many friends were travelling and we too had only just returned from the Austrian Tirol. In any case, a significant proportion of my friends and relatives are widely dispersed around the world.

It occurred to me that I should try to organise a virtual birthday party. However, looking online, no-one seemed to have tried to have a virtual party with more than a few people.

In the event, around 30 friends and relatives joined the virtual birthday party online, with 3 friends joining in person. The furthest east was a friend in Bangkok, Thailand and the furthest west was a friend in Winnipeg, Canada. It was fun, at least for me, not only to see and hear everyone from so far afield but also to be able to bring together people who have been important to my life but who might otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to each other because of the geographical distance between them.

Of course, some things did not quite work out as planned. In particular, several friends and relatives tried to connect but were not able to do so, mainly because they could not find the connection link, which I had put at the very end of my invitation.

So, in case anyone else would like to organise a virtual party, here are the steps I would recommend:

Preparation

  1. Make sure you have a stable internet connection wherever you will be at the time of your party.
  2. Get a Zoom Pro licence (the minimum is for 1 month), which allows up to 100 participants. There are other video-conferencing options, such as Google Hangouts, but ideally you need the possibility to create ‘breakout rooms’. This requires a more specialised platform.
  3. Check that you have suitable equipment to allow people online to hear you and see you properly, even if you have others attending the party with you in person. This could be just a smartphone or a tablet but you may need to run the sound through an amplifier/speaker for everyone with you to hear those online.
  4. Create the Zoom session for the party.

Invitation

  1. I had thought of using an invitation platform such as evite or Eventbrite to make the invitation look attractive on any platform. I am connected with different friends and relatives in different ways (e-mail, social media, text messages, etc).

    Although I used Eventbrite this time, I don’t think I would do so again. Several friends thought the Eventbrite link would get them into the virtual party. In future, I would keep the invitation short and provide the Zoom connection details near the start of the text.
  2. Identify a period in your time zone which you can manage to be there yourself for the whole time and which allows everyone you wish to invite an opportunity to connect at a reasonable time in their time zones. For my virtual birthday party, I had invited people to join between 18:00 and midnight Central European Time. Those in the Far East could join in the first part of that period. Those in the Americas could join the last part of that.
  3. Send invitations 2-3 weeks in advance, including the Zoom meeting ID (and password).
  4. Send a reminder 2-3 days in advance to those who have confirmed that they will participate and to those who have not replied.
  5. Explain that those joining online should join the party with their preferred food/drink to hand.
  6. You could also mention the advantage of not having to worry about how to get home after the party ;-).
  7. I wrote individual messages to the friends I was inviting but this does take time. As I only had the idea a few days before my birthday, I did not manage to invite everyone I had intended to.

The party

  1. Test your technical setup (audio, video and internet connection) at least 1 hour before the first people are due to join.
  2. Prepare breakout rooms called ‘Living room’, ‘Dining room’, ‘Kitchen’ into which you could ‘Assign’ your guests during the party, if there are more than 4 or 5 guests online at the same time. [In a forthcoming update to Zoom, guests will be able to select for themselves which room they want to go into. Perhaps one day they will be able to do so based on who is in each room.]
  3. Make sure that you abandon neither those online nor those physically with you. This can be difficult. Ideally someone who is physically with you could switch with you from time to time between being the online host and the host in the physical venue.
  4. In principle, you should not tantalise your online guests with the food and drinks you are having at your physical venue. In practice, it is difficult to resist this temptation. The follow-up to the cake-cutting photo above was one of my friends showing those online in close-up  how delicious the cake was … .

Although it is difficult to make a virtual party as immersive as a real party, it does offer a way to bring together people who are geographically far apart and revive informal conversations with them. If you try this yourself (or if you attended my virtual birthday party – or indeed did not manage to do so [sorry!]), please add any suggestions for improvement in the comments below.

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