Category: Video

Hybrid Conventions

When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, all of the Sci-Fi conventions I volunteer with had to cancel or switch to an online format. Since the Pandemic has stabilized, it is not over, we have just learned more or less how to live with it, conventions have gone back to in-person events. But, we realized that there is a demand for online Sci-Fi convention activities. There are people who cannot attend in-person for a variety of very good reasons, from health and age related to cost and time. There is a market for online Sci-Fi convention activities.

A couple notes on terminology before I go on. Many people refer to these online activities as ‘virtual‘, as in ‘virtual convention’, ‘virtual panel’, ‘virtual attendees’. I realized this is disrespectful to those involved. The people are not ‘virtual’, so they are not ‘virtual attendees’, they are real people who are online or remote attendees. I avoid the use of the term ‘virtual’ for this reason.

The other term I want to define is ‘hybrid‘. I have heard that term used to describe a whole variety of things related to in-person and online activities. In my view a true ‘hybrid activity’, be it a convention, panel discussion, reading, or anything else is an activity with both an in-person component and an online component where the goal is for the experience to be as similar as possible between the in-person and online activity. So a ‘hybrid panel discussion’ would support both in-person panelists as well as online panelists on an equal footing, the audience would also consist of both in-person and online people on an equal footing. Hybrid is not running a couple online tracks of programming at the same time as an in-person convention. Hybrid is not streaming a couple tracks of programming (or events) from an in-person convention. Hybrid is about creating, to the best of our ability, the same experience for people whether they are in-person or online.

You will notice that I use the term ‘activity‘ in many places below where you might think I should be using ‘convention’. I do this on purpose as a convention may be in-person but still have aspects or activities that are hybrid.

Should All Conventions Be Hybrid?

The answer to this an an unequivocal no! There are many different factors that should determine whether a convention should attempt to be hybrid. Beyond the obvious factors of staffing (hybrid does require more staff with different skill sets) there are factors such as cost (can the convention get good enough Internet at their hotel / facility at a cost they can afford) and impact on in-person attendance (will an online offering draw from the in-person attendance and the convention risks missing a hotel block commitment). Each convention is unique and needs to examine their individual situation to decide if they can successfully be hybrid. Some may think they can, and try for a year or two, only to decide they cannot. Others my know themselves well enough to know they cannot do a good job with a hybrid convention. Others may decide to not hold a hybrid activity but to hold, at different times, both an in-person activity as well as an online activity. I expect that a small percentage of SciFi conventions will be able to successful transition to being a hybrid convention. This is OK. Every convention needs to do what they can do well, without overtaxing staff.

What Does It Take To Have A Successful Hybrid Activity?

A successful hybrid activity requires the buy-in from the entire committee and staff running the activity. The most critical areas that must agree to be hybrid and agree on what hybrid means are:

  • Chair
  • Programming
  • Technical Support Services
  • Facilities / Hotel
  • Registration
  • Hospitality / Con Suite


This one should be obvious. The Chair and their immediate staff must work towards the outcome of same experience for in-person and online.


Programming a hybrid activity is very different from an in-person one. Instead of reaching out to panelists who are likely to be attending, programming can reach out to people who may not be able to travel to the activity, people who may not be able to commit to an entire weekend, people who the activity may not usually be able to afford. Programming can reach out to a much larger, broader audience. A high profile author who may not be able to commit to a weekend may be able to commit to an hour or two. Having an author from across the country, who cannot afford to travel, do a reading is a wonderful treat for their fans.

Programming also needs to maintain communication with Program Participants as the activity approaches, since this may be a very small time commitment, it may not be front of mind for people.

Program Operations Staff also have a much bigger role in hybrid activities. Instead of just giving moderators 10 and 5 minute warning and making sure panelists are in place, Program Ops needs to be assisting panel moderators and readers with managing online chats and Q&A, they need to ensure that in-person audience questions and comments are clearly heard by the online panelists and audience.

Programming needs to use a tool for scheduling that can provide links for online activities that are restricted to registered people.

Technical Support Services

Tech has a much bigger role in hybrid due to the need for reliable Internet, the ability to originate Zoom (or other conference) meetings, the need to both see and hear local as well as online panelists and audience.

Additionally, Tech needs to have a way to gate access to the online elements. There are countless ways to handle this, but it generally falls under Tech (unless the activity has a separate, dedicated IT staff).

Facilities / Hotel

Facilities / Hotel needs to ensure that there is good quality, reliable Internet not just at the facility, but in the rooms where it is needed. This may be wireless, but much better to be wired. Tech often requests an isolated (or dark or dry) network besides the Internet. This permits Tech to isolate management traffic and handle more tasks with fewer staff. Room sets will be slightly different for hybrid activities.


Registration needs to be able to support both typical in-person registrations as well as online only registrations. Registration needs to have a method to provide, in near real-time, registration data to the gating system. Having someone register at 2:45 PM for a 3:00 PM online activity but not be imported into the gating system until 5:00 PM is poor customer service and a bad experience for the person trying to attend online.

Hospitality / Con Suite

Hospitality needs to think about how online attendees are going to be integrated into social activities. How do you make the Con Suite or a Meet The Pros activity a positive experience for online attendees? This has to be part of the planning.

Does Everything Need To Be Hybrid?

Simply put, no. A fully Hybrid Convention is one where the organizers strive to have comparable experiences for both in-person and online attendees for every aspect of the convention. Most conventions will not be able to achieve this. That is OK. A convention with a number of hybrid activities is just fine (as long as that is clearly communicated to prospective attendees in advance).

Staffing and Logistics

The following is based on my experiences working on the following conventions that have had online components:

  • ConZealand: Worldcon in 2020 (entirely online)
  • DisConIII: Worldcon in 2021
  • Boskone in 2022 and 2023
  • Balticon in 2022
  • Albacon in 2022


These are staff positions that are necessary during the convention. Some have responsibilities pre- and/or post-con as well.

  1. Program Ops: There needs to be a Program Ops person in each activity room to assist the panel moderators with handling online Chat and Q&A. I have heard from many moderators that handling both moderation of the panelists as well as wrangling Q&A from the audience (both in-person and online), and making sure the online Chat does not go off the rails, is just too much. In some cases, a Tech person may be able to fulfill this role, but if something Tech goes sideways they won’t be paying attention to these tasks. Besides, most Tech people do not have the skill set to manage these tasks. Some conventions, such as EasterCon in 2023, have solicited volunteers from the in-person audience for this role and made it work.
  2. Tech Staff In The Room: There needs to be a Tech Staff person in the activity room to ensure that all the equipment is properly set, cameras aimed at the panelists and audience, sound levels good, Zoom feed live, and any local presentations are setup. In many cases, once the activity starts the Tech does not need to stay, but they must be available to handle any problems that may develop.
  3. Tech Staff Online: For any activity with an online panelist, reader, or presenter there needs to be a Tech available online to ensure the panelist, reader, presenter is properly promoted, they can be seen and heard, and are comfortable. These staff may be anywhere in the world.
  4. Tech HQ QC: This is a role we have taken to calling ‘Zoom Master’ as this person is watching multiple computers, one for each online activity. Their responsibility is to ensure that the activity looks and sounds good online, captions are live, recordings are started, etc. Recent experience indicates that with many online activities at once, more than one ‘Zoom Master’ may be needed. Empirical evidence from Balticon in 2023 (and others) indicate that one person can only successfully manage 3 to 4 online activities at one time. Some people may be able to handle more, others less. This is also the dispatch point for problems (“get me a tech in meeting room A for an audio issue”).

No convention should plan for one person per role above. While sometimes there is no choice due to staffing issues, I believe you need to plan for at least 2 people per role so that people have time off. So for a small convention with 2 program rooms, 1 reading room, 1 con suite, and 1 lobby social area I would plan for a minimum staff of 10 in-person tech, 4 in-person program ops, 6 online tech, 2 tech supervisors, and 1 or 2 program supervisors at a minimum.


This section is not about moving things in and out, but how the various spaces are setup and the equipment needed.

Program Room

  • Sound system, local mics to room and Zoom, Zoom to room
  • Video switcher (ATEM) with multi-view monitor
  • HDMI switcher: selects feed to projector, confidence monitors
  • Cameras to cover panelists (2 in split screen with ATEM)
  • Camera to cover audience
  • Projector: to show online panelists and presentations
  • Confidence monitors for panelists to see online panelists
  • Laptop to originate Zoom: video feed, audio feed (Co-Host) this is a Zoom Webinar
  • Laptop for Confidence, feeds confidence monitors
  • Laptop / Tablet for Program Ops to handle Chat / Q&A (Co-Host)

Reading Room

  • Sound system, local mic to Zoom, Zoom to room
  • Video switcher (ATEM) with multi-view monitor
  • Camera to cover reader
  • Camera to cover audience
  • Confidence monitor for reader to see online audience
  • Laptop to originate Zoom: video feed, audio feed (Co-Host) this is a Zoom Meeting
  • Laptop / Tablet for Program Ops to handle Chat / Q&A (Co-Host)

Social Space (Con Suite, Lobby)

  • Laptop to originate Zoom: video feed, audio feed (Co-Host) this is a Zoom Meeting
  • Camera to cover audience
  • Speaker for around laptop
  • Mic for around laptop
  • Mic for anbience
  • Mixer (ducking)
  • Audio Interface

Tech HQ

  • One Laptop per activity, these hold the Zoom Host role, QC the activity
  • One Laptop for control panel and utility

The above includes 4 Laptops per activity / room, distributed as follows:

  1. Tech HQ for Zoom Host and QC
  2. In-Room for Zoom origination, Co-Host
  3. In-Room confidence
  4. In-Room for Program Ops for Chat and Q&A


It is possible to have a positive experience for both in-person and online activity participants, but it takes commitment, planning, coordination, and execution. This requires more staff than either an in-person activity or an online activity. It cannot just be grafted onto an activity at the end, but must be planned for from the start. Doing Hybrid Activities is not for all SciFi Conventions, but for those that can, it can increase their breadth of programming and audience, it can bring SciFi Conventions to a new audience.

Japanese Industrial Video Formats of the 1970’s

When I was in High School (1978 through 1981) we had a small closed circuit TV station with B&W cameras, video recorders, and a small switcher. Much of the equipment was Sony or old broadcast cast-offs (Conrac monitors, Tektronix waveform monitor, etc.).

The video recorders we had were all Sony. Starting with the largest (and biggest), the EV-200 was an EIAJ 1″ B&W helical scan recorder with mechanical transport control. In other words, a big Rewind – Stop – Play/Rec – Fast Forward lever / knob. The tape wrap was 180 degrees around the drum.

Next was the EV-340 which was also EIAJ 1″, but had electronic control and an optional ColorPack (this did color under, see the related video post here). I never recall this machine working well and it was rarely used. I never saw it work in color.

Then we got the EIAJ 1/2″ AV-3650 which was a marvel because it could edit. Both Assemble Edit as well as Insert Edit. A mechanical transport control meant that you could not control it via any sort of edit controller, just manually drop into record cleanly (assemble edit) or punch into and drop out of record while playing (insert edit) cleanly.

The AV-3400 was EIAJ 1/2″, portable and included a portable camera (all B&W). It could even run for a bit (an hour if memory serves) from a built in rechargeable battery!

At some point we got a new fangled Industrial (not home) BetaMax with mechanical tuner and large “piano” keys mechanical operation. It recorded color!

My senior year we recorded the Presidential Inauguration (Ronald Reagan) and then showed it during every class period the next day for all the Social Studies classes. We did the recording on three machines; EV-200, AV-3650, BetaMax. For playback we started by rotating through all three, but after the third period we decided to use the EV-200 for all the remaining playback because (in B&W, which is what all the classroom TV sets were) it looked the best of the three. The AV-3650 looked slightly soft and the BetaMax was much softer as it had all the filtering to handle the color component.

So even in 1981 I was comparing video formats and picking the best looking.

Portable Video Tape Recording Formats of the 80’s and 90’s

Between 1984 and 1993 I worked professionally in Broadcasting on the Engineering side of the house, mostly at TV stations. Right around 1990 there was a new low cost video tape format on the market, Hi-8, that was supposed to be better than the bulky 3/4″ U-matic. The TV Station I worked at decided to try it and bought three combination camera / recorders. They were given to three of the News Videographers who were told to shoot with them and see what they thought.

Keep in mind that adding a new format took more than just putting gear in the field. We had to equip some of our 5 edit bays with Hi-8 playback decks (the final edits were still cut to U-matic so they could be played on air). So the station had a pretty hefty investment of both time and money in this new format.

So when the more discerning Videographers started complaining that the Hi-8 material did not “look as good” as the footage shot on U-matic, we in the Engineering Department had to figure out why.
My boss, the Chief Engineer, came to me and said that we needed to put together a comparison of all the various portable video formats at the time and grade them from best to worst in terms of “how good they looked”. I also had to explain why each looked the way it did.

To summarize, the portable formats of the day were, in no specific order, with the tape width and whether each was a professional or consumer format:

  • 3/4″ U-matic (pro)
  • 3/4″ U-matic SP (pro)
  • 1/2″ BetaCam (pro)
  • 1/2″ BeatCam SP (pro)
  • 8mm Hi-8 (consumer)
  • 8mm 8mm (consumer, yes the format name and size are the same)
  • 1/2″ Super-VHS (consumer)
  • 1/2″ VHS-HiFi / VHS (consumer)
  • 1/2″ Super-BetaMax (consumer)
  • 1/2″ BetaMax-HiFi / BetaMax (consumer)

VHS-HiFi and VHS were grouped together as they had the same video performance, same for BetaMax-HiFi and BetaMax. Note that BetaMax is a consumer format while BetaCam is a professional; so you really can’t say just “Beta”, even though the tape cassettes are the same, they are loaded with different types of tape. You can use base BetaCam tapes in a BetaMax (I did), but you could not go the other way, nor could you use BetaCam SP tapes. The U-matic SP and BetaCam SP formats are different enough from their non-SP cousins that we looked at then separately, and it shows in the results. I did not include SMPTE 1″ Type C in the above list even though we had a “portable” VPR-20, it was not really portable enough for News Gathering, which was the end goal here.

EDIT: Someone mentioned the Japanese industrial formats of the 1970’s used in the Sony EV-200, EV-3xx series, AV-34xx series (portable), and AV-36xx series. These were 1″ (EV) or 1/2″ (AV) and generally B&W, but there was a color adapter available for at least some of the EV-3xx series. I have always seen them described as “EIAJ 1″ for the 1” and “EIAJ 1/2″ for the 1/2”. I have also seen them referred to as JIS format. They were not included above as we did not test them because they were not suitable for broadcast. Then again, some might argue that VHS and BetaMax were not suitable for broadcast either… See my longer port on these formats here.

We already had a bunch of these in house, the ones we did not, we managed to borrow from a local dealer.

I sat down and talked to the Videographers who thought the Hi-8 did not look as good as the U-matic and tried to understand what about the images they did not like. The technical specifications of Hi-8 beat out U-matic, so I could not just repeat the measurements the manufacturers did. I got a lot of very subjective language, but that lead me in a certain direction. While the sharpness was better in the Hi-8 images, the colors did not look right. That directed my testing and our subjective rankings. Since the technical explanation of both how video recording works and the testing we did gets pretty deep, here are the results first.

The Portable Video Formats of 1990 in Order from Best to Worst (Subjectively):

  1. 1/2″ BetaCam SP
  2. 1/2″ Super-VHS
  3. 3/4″ U-matic SP
  4. 1/2″ BetaCam
  5. 1/2″ Super-BetaMax
  6. 3/4″ U-matic
  7. 8mm Hi-8
  8. 1/2″ BetaMax-HiFi / BetaMax
  9. 8mm 8mm
  10. 1/2″ VHS-HiFi / VHS

Note that the Professional formats did not all come out on top. To say that we, in the Engineering shop, were surprised that Super-VHS came in second is an understatement. We all owned BetaMax decks at home. But, Super-VHS was a marketing term for one (or more) of six separate features that improved the look of the video. The deck we tested probably included all six, but you could put the label on the machine if it included just one.

It was no surprise that BetaCam SP came out on top, it was the most sophisticated of the formats and cost almost twice as much as any other option in the list. The dividing line between U-matic SP and BetaCam was a fine one and on a different day they might have swapped places on the list (it is a subjective list). Those were the only two that were that close.

All of the formats listed, with the exception of the two BetaCam formats, use a technique called “color under” to record color video. The BetaCam formats separate the video into three components (luminance or Y, and two color axis R-Y and B-Y) and record them separately, hence they are considered “component video” formats.

NTSC video, the legacy analog color video specification in the US, is a composite signal consisting of both luminance (brightness) and chromanance (color or chroma). The luminance is the base signal, based on the original US video signal. The color element is carried on a 3.58 MHz carrier that is both amplitude (for saturation) and phase (for hue) modulated. The overall signal is bandwidth limited to just over 4 MHz to avoid interfering with the sound signal (at 4.5 MHZ) in the television RF transmitter. So to record this color video signal you need about 4 MHz of bandwidth. The bandwidth you can record on tape is limited, to use a modern term, by the information density you can write and read from the tape. So the faster you move the tape, the higher bandwidth you can record.

The very first practical video tape recorder developed by Ampex (Ray Dolby of later audio fame was on that engineering team) used 2″ wide tape and moved the heads perpendicular to the tape motion. There were four heads, and as one head was leaving the tape the next was coming into contact. Because the tape was moving linearly, the heads traced a diagonal line across the tape. This format was known as 2″ Quadralplex or quad for short. The video signal was directly recorded on the tape. There were various variations of 2″ quad for black & white and later color (in both high and low quality). These machines were huge and real marvels of mechanical design.

In order to make video reorders smaller, a way to use smaller tape (moving slower) had to be devised. To accomplish this the bandwidth necessary needed to be reduced. By stripping the 3.58 MHz color sub-carrier from the composite video you could do a good enough job of recording the luminance part with small, relatively slow tape (1″, 3/4″, even 1/2″). My High School had a number of 1″ and 1/2″ industrial video recorders that handled black & white (and the 1″ looked much better than the 1/2″, yes, I was a video geek even back then). The video heads still rotate past the tape (to increase the head-to-tape speed), but at a much more shallow angle than the almost 90 degrees of 2″ quad. This class of tape transport was known as “helical scan” because of the path the (typically 2) video heads took past the tape.

Someone then had the brilliant idea to use the superheterodyne principal (see a write up here) to convert the 3.58 MHz chroma signal down to a manageable frequency.

Wait a minute, you say. By down converting the chroma signal aren’t you loosing information? Yes, and that is the crux of this whole story. You loose the ability to discern small color details and rapid changes in color. Each color under system makes a slightly different compromise in terms of how much you loose, but they all loose something.

The reason the images from the Hi-8 systems did not look as good as the U-matic is that the Hi-8 systems had a noticeably lower chroma bandwidth. While the Hi-8 system could resolve a thin vertical pole better than a U-matic system, with the U-matic system you could tell that the pole was red, while the Hi-8 system showed a very well defined grey pole. This is what the Videographers were seeing and not liking. The color details were getting lost. Color bandwidth was not a parameter that any video recorder reported, they all just reported luminance “lines of resolution” and the Hi-8 system was designed to optimize that at the cost of the color.

The other real technical challenge in color under systems is making the color signal line up correctly with the luminance after it has been down converted and then converted back up to 3.58 MHz and recombined with the luminance. And remember, this was all, for the most part, being done with purely analog circuitry. The cost for the converters to digitize video was just getting low enough to see the start of widespread adoption of digital techniques in 1990.