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The Problem with PAX…

Isn’t really a problem with the convention, or most of the attendees, or even the natural result of having a multi-day convention. It’s a sudden demand for a service that for other conventions functions adequately without a problem.

In previous years, it was the demand for food that caused problems with the nearby vendors. Subway ran out of bread, Starbucks and Tully’s closed hours before the weekend concerts, much less the last panels, and there wasn’t very much publicity for attendees on where to find alternate sources of food and caffeine.

Like other conventions based around a fan community rather than a professional gathering, PAX encourages attendees to be at the convention location for the entire time it is open. This means that instead of having rotating shifts of people moving in and out of the convention center, moving away to visit the city and network with the other attendees, people who go to PAX don’t want to go further than a block, for fear of missing something or because their entire weekend is fully booked.

Instead of a food shortage or Swine Flu outbreak, this year the problem was wireless data saturation, or the inability to send or receive texts during peak hours, with all that entails. “That doesn’t sound like much of a problem,” you say. Imagine, however, you are a vendor who has spent however much for your table at PAX, and your nifty wireless credit card machine doesn’t work because you can’t dial out of the cloud. Imagine trying to get in touch with friends for lunch and being unable to get their texts until hours later. Imagine needing to check email for work or because of a sick relative, and being unable to get any type of signal within a few blocks of PAX’s epicenter.

Some of the problem may be that the Washington State Convention Center, as a cement building, has dead zones like any older building, where cell tower coverage cannot reach. Some blame may also be due to the exhibits on the expo hall floor itself, as the flashing lights and hundreds of computers and displays produce white noise that interferes with signals for dozens of feet in every direction. More can be laid at the feet of those live-blogging, tweeting, and attempting to document everything they do for those who could not be there to appreciate it as well. And part of the problem is because of the nature of PAX itself. We’re nerds. We’re early adopters, fairly tech savvy, and probably have more electronics per person than almost anywhere else in Seattle. Cram that all into one or two square city blocks, and there will be signal failure on a massive scale.

However, this was also the second year that PAX did “Queue Room Entertainment” by having quizzes, music videos, and other interactions by a company called Get in Line. In practice and in theory this is a great concept, where you have large screens entertaining the several thousand people waiting to get into the convention or other queue, but the form of entertainment periodically contributed to the problem. The shot above is of one of the quizzes, where everyone in the room (1500 attendees, 5 panelists, and at least 25 staffers) attempted to text their choice to a number within 45 seconds of the screen appearing. In the Queue Room, the texters could number over 2000. Saturation of information during the peak times, and then over-saturation during the quizzes.

The official PAX twitter feed did discuss the expected failure of the cell towers before the convention started, and what signal was provided was because of boosts and extra bandwidth provided. In a way, it should be a mark of success that this year, the problem with PAX wasn’t that everyone came down with H1Nerd1 or caused a local food shortage, but that too much information was attempting to escape the confines of the venue. A minor annoyance at the time, but otherwise a sign of a well-run and popular event.

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Posted in Tuesday: Potpourri.