I've learned a new word: webinar. Stefan has had a few. Maybe it's contagious.
A webinar, so I've learned, is a web-based seminar. It's a hybrid of video conference and desktop sharing. If you know the International Loop Quantum Gravity Seminar (ILQGS) series, this is the pleistocenic predecessor of a webinar. To take part, you download the slides online prior to the seminar, then dial in to hear what the speaker has to say. One thing he'll be telling you is when to go to the next slide.
A webinar now makes use of advanced file-sharing. Somebody plays the role of a moderator who shares a desktop, not necessarily his own, with all participants, for example the powerpoint presentation of the speaker, but it might also be a demonstration of a software or pictures from your latest trip to the pleistocene or whatever. So, you don't have to switch slides on your own and can pleasantly doze off. Just take care not to hit the keyboard for a webinar is interactive and you might accidentally ask the question "Ghyughgggggggggggggggggg?"
In principle one could stream the audio right along with the desktop and also combine it with a video. However, sharing videos of the participants has limits both at bandwidth and feasibility. If you're giving a seminar with an audience of 100 people, you neither want nor need a video of every single one picking their nose. Much more useful is the option to virtually 'raise a hand' and ask a question, either by audio or by a chat interface.
The webinar interface that Stefan has made some experience with is called webex. In these webinars that Stefan has attented, the audio was not streamed along with the desktop sharing over the web. Instead, participants submit a phone number at which the software will call them. That has the disadvantage that you have to be on the phone in addition to sitting at the computer. (You also need to have a phone line to begin with.) It has the advantage however that if the web connection breaks down you can still try to figure out the problem on the phone. Webex is not a free service - I suppose one primarily pays for the bandwidth that allows many participants since desktop sharing and video conferencing with a few people is doable on Skype also. Google brings up some free offers for webinar software, but I don't know any of them. Let me know if you've tried some of these free services, I'd be interested to hear how good or bad they are.
From the speaker's side the situation requires some adaption if one is used to 'real' seminars. One has to stop oneself from mumbling into the laptop. For pointing at some item, one has to use the cursor which is possible but not ideal. One would wish for an easy way to enlarge the icon so it is better visible.
From the side of the audience there's the general temptation of leaving to get a coffee and forgetting to come back because who will notice anyway. One is also left wondering how many of the participants are sitting in bed or have just replaced themselves with a software that will ask the occasional question. It is actually more a comment than a question...
From both sides there is the necessity to get used to the software which is typically the main obstacle for applications to spread.
If one wants to combine a webinar with a real seminar, new technological hurdles are in the way but they aren't too difficult to take. The shared desktop can be projected with a beamer as usual, the audio needs to go on a speaker. The question is how to deal with 'real' audience questions. This requires a good A/V equipment at location.
In any case, the technology is clearly there and one already finds some webinar offers online. The APS for example has some webinars with career advice, and Physics World also has a few listed. Most of the webinars that I have come across so far are however software demonstrations. But after increasingly many institutions routinely record seminars and make them available online, I think webinars are the next step that we might see spreading though academia. I for sure would appreciate the possibility to easily log in to one or the other seminar from home while I am on parental leave.
However, if the nomenclature develops as it did with weblogs, we'll end up sitting in binars, you're either in or you're not.
Have you made experience with a webinar? Would you consider attending, giving, or organizing one?