A video says much more than a thousand words – rapid communication of scientific concepts via the “Podster”, a historic waystation towards a truly dynamic presentation surface

The efficient communication of complex scientific concepts at an academic conference poses a challenge that is as old as it is formidable. The use of dynamic visual stimuli and intricate experimental designs have exacerbated the problems associated with this issue in recent decades, particularly in the area of visual neuroscience. It is not an easy task to communicate experimental procedures and results to an audience unfamiliar with the study, often under conditions of sleep deprivation and within a short period of time, as people typically visit a multitude of presentations. These issues are partially alleviated in slide sessions, during which the speaker can show the audience his actual stimuli, no matter how sophisticated. Yet, posters are generally much more ubiquitous than talks – at SfN 2006, posters outnumbered talks 10.5:1. This number is fairly typical of scientific conventions in general. Hence, the problem is to incorporate the positive aspects of a talk into the poster format.
Previous solutions typically involve a laptop computer. In one version of this approach, the laptop is held by the presenter while in another, it is suspended from the poster board. Both of these solutions are sub-optimal. In the former case, opportunities  to gesture are reduced, possibly impairing cognitive processing in both audience and presenter. Executing the latter approach is technically challenging and typically results in a display that is not on eye level and that crowds out the actual poster. Problems common to all incarnations of the laptop approach involve the lack of batteries that last an entire poster session, restricted viewing angles inherent to many notebook displays, thus limiting the number of people who can view the display at the same time and a fundamental lack of interactivity, as it is awkward for both presenter and audience to use the laptop controls in this setup.
To summarize, the common laptop solutions to the presentation challenge solve some problems but introduce others.
The goal remains to combine the audio-visual advantages of a talk with the interactivity and closeness with the audience that is afforded by a poster presentation.
This goal can be achieved by attaching one or more video iPods to the poster surface. The iPods can be seamlessly integrated in the poster as dynamic figures. These currently feature a 2.5” screen with a resolution of up to 640 x 480 pixels at very broad viewing angles. Efficient power management allows a battery life that lasts the entire poster session. More importantly, the small size of the unit makes it easy to place multiple iPods at the appropriate places on the poster. The controls make for a very interactive experience, as the presenter can focus the attention of the audience on what is relevant at a given time in the poster narrative. This allows to implement and augment psychologically appropriate presentation techniques.  Moreover, the hands of the presenter are free for gesturing and pointing, enhancing the learning experience of the audience. As in a talk, visual displays allow the audience to utilize their powerful visuospatial systems to maximize information transmission. As far as we can tell, the concept introduces no obvious drawbacks. This Podster concept was first implemented at SfN 2006, with overwhelmingly positive audience feedback, see Figure 1.

Figure 1: The first Podster, at SfN 2006

Practical considerations
Overall, the implementation of the concept is very simple. Yet, there are some things to consider to maximize the impact.
• In principle, other devices other than iPods can be used to achieve the same effect. Yet, these devices should be white, light and flat to be suitable as dynamic figures that are integrated with the rest of the poster. Moreover, battery power and resolution should be sufficient. Current video iPods fit these specifications, but other devices that do too are also suitable.
• One reason why video iPods are particularly useful for the implementation of this concept is the fact that they are already available in large numbers among the general public, allowing for a dual use at no additional cost.
• Try to place the iPod figures at eye level – this will facilitate audience interaction.
• The iPods can be easily attached with tesa® poster powerstrips. Two per iPod are sufficient.
• After mounting the iPdos, wipe the screen with alcohol swabs for clarity.
• If audio is desired, the earplugs can be mounted next to the iPod with tacks, see figure 1. Make sure to also wipe them with alcohol swabs between each use to prevent the transmission of ear diseases.
• To ensure a smooth removal of the iPods after the presentation, the poster should be laminated. Otherwise, the probability that the poster will rip is high.
• The Podster really affords the flexibility of a talk. In other words, one can update the dynamic figures up until the point of the presentation.
• In practice, this allows the re-use of posters with continuously updated data figures. This consideration is not immaterial with professional poster printing costs currently being around 200$.
Summary and Outlook
The biggest advantage of a poster presentation is the direct exchange with the audience. One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of dynamic visual images to illustrate experimental stimuli, designs and results. Placing small portable video screens on the poster to yield a “podster” overcomes these problems. Hence, the podster combines the visual flexibility of a talk with the interactive narrative of a poster at low cost and little effort. Thus, the podster effectively constitutes a significant advance in the rapid communication of sciencific information.
The next thing to look for in the practical implementation of the podster is the full screen video iPod, featuring a 3.5” screen and is scheduled to launch within 6 months.
In the long run, technologies such as electronic ink or convention centers equipped with flat screens or touch screens instead of poster boards are likely to replace conventional poster presentations altogether.
Yet, it is unclear when this bright future will arrive. In the meantime, the podster is a viable and valuable bridge technology towards a dynamic presentation surface, augmenting the rapid communication of scientific information at poster sessions.

Note: This is a reproduction of something I wrote in late 2006, after the debut of the podster concept in a real life setting (SfN, if that counts as “real life”). How times can change – first we went from the podster to the padster, and now truly dynamic posters are not far off. Soon, hordes of scientists taking up all the overhead bins of a plane headed to or from SfN will be a thing of the past.

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