Digital Guide to Dragon*Con 2011

Dragon*Con 2013 attendees, more up-to-date information on WiFi and Internet for the 2013 event is here.

Dragon*Con 2011 in Atlanta is next weekend. It is a gigantic convention for fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books and other pop-culture topics. For several years now it has had a dedicated track of programming for skeptics called Skeptrack.

The purpose of this blog post is to be a clearinghouse for all things digital related to the meeting. The particular focus is on Skeptrack, but there are a bunch of resources and tips here that will be useful to any digitally connected attendee.

Just some of the info in this post that can save you time or money or both:

  • Do you need internet access but are not bringing a laptop? I’ll tell you which hotel supplies computers you can use for free.
  • Are you staying at the Marriott Marquis? I’ll tell you how to save at least $5 per day on WiFi charges.
  • On a tight budget and desperately need some free WiFi near the con? I’ll tell you several places to go.
  • Would you like to put the pocket program on your Kindle, Blackberry or other portable, but don’t know how? I’ll show you a site that can do it for you.
  • Want to rent a 4G modem during the show? I’ll tell you how.

All that and much more, after the jump…

There’s quite alot of information here, so for quick reference, here’s a table of contents you can use to jump forward as needed:

Online Sources of Conference Info

There are a wide variety of sources of information about the show online, both official and unofficial. The Dragon*Con website most up-to-date official information. There is also a web site for the convention newsletter, the Daily Dragon. Almost any question you have about the convention can be answered on those sites. In particular, you may want to bookmark this page at the Daily Dragon for a complete list of programming changes.

A bit of trivia: I was the original creator and editor of the Daily Dragon back in 1990. I ran it and a couple related departments (such as the information desks, and creating the pocket program design that is still in use) until 1997.

Dragon*Con Smartphone App

If you have a smartphone of some kind, the best way to have all the information relating to the event at your fingertips is the app. Follow Me, the same app that was customized for Skeptrack last year as well as several TAMs, has been customized for iPhone as well as for Android.

The application has the complete guest list as well as a complete schedule of events. You can browse these a few different ways. Tap “Speakers/Performer” to browse an alphabetical list of people. Tap a name to see that person’s speaking schedule. Or you can tap “Events” to access the entire schedule (tap “All Events”) or by track (tap the track name). Keep tapping to see more details.

Once you are looking at an event listing (however you got there) you can bookmark it simply by tapping the star in the upper right corner. All your bookmarked events will appear under “My Schedule” from the main screen. That’s a good way to plan your weekend, then refer to it as you go about your day to see what is up next.

The app has all sorts of other info as well. You can view maps of the hotels. You can view documents containing useful info such as shuttle bus schedules. You can also get alerts from the convention organizers and get a quick look at the current conversations on Twitter about the show. The Daily Dragon editor posted a mini-tutorial for the app, check it for more tips.

If your phone is not an iPhone or Android, do not despair. There is also a mobile web version of the application you can access from any browser such as a Blackberry or even a PC or Mac. It has much the same features, but you will need to log in to use the personalization features such as creating your own schedule. And, of course, you’ll need access to the internet whenever you plan to use it.

Here’s a tip. The link for mobile web version also redirects to the iPhone or Android version as appropriate. So that one hyperlink is all you need. You can also use the QR code at right to access that URL.

Another tip. The app updates itself at least daily to insure you have the best info. But naturally these updates require a working Internet connection. Keep in mind that Dragon*Con is held in multiple large hotels with varying levels of Internet availability. If you suspect your phone or tablet’s net access might not work well in all locations, be sure to update the app just before you leave home, or while in the airport. Just click the “Sync” icon to force an update. See below for locations near the con where free WiFi is available.

While I’m on the subject of Android users, a game called League of Spies will be available at the convention and you can help play-test it.

Online Calendars

Part of the reason for the smartphone app is the programming schedule for Dragon*Con is huge. It takes a 128-page booklet to describe it all. If you don’t have a smartphone, or would prefer to see the full book anyway, you don’t have to wait until you arrive to read those 128 pages. The book is available online now in a number of different formats.

You can download the full 128-page booklet or alternately just the schedule grids from the center pull-out as PDF files. On some systems you may need to install the Adobe Acrobat software to view them if you don’t have it already.

If you would rather read the program online (or you don’t care to install Acrobat Reader) you can read both documents in web page form via Google Docs. Here are links for the full pocket program and the pull-out schedule grids via Google Docs. You can view or search them there, or save copies to your own Google Docs workspace.

If you’d like another option for online reading, the two documents have also been uploaded to Scribd. Both the full pocket program and the pull-out schedule grids are viewable directly online there.

Another use for Scribd: if you hit the button marked “mobile” on the right side, the site can convert the file to a format appropriate for many mobile devices and send it directly to your device. This includes such devices as Kindle, Nook, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Palm and many more.

There is also an unofficial version of the track programming grids being maintained in a wiki that has many other tips and advice about Dragon*Con. (I’m not sure how up-to-date this is being kept now that the official schedule has been published).

Streaming Video

Skeptrack will be trying to stream all of the programming from their room live this year, as they did last year. You can watch it at the Ustream.tv web site. I’ll also put up an embed on the top of this blog on the first day of the show.

Note: when a small programming track like Skeptrack has a major guest on their schedule, the convention moves that event to a larger room, for obvious logistical reasons. For also obvious reasons, it is impossible to move the entire video rig to the other room for one hour. Thus, the Skeptrack video will go dark during these events.

You can see which events these are on the Skeptrack schedule, they’re the ones not listed as Hilton 205/206/207. As I write this, these events include:

  • Thursday 7:00 pm – Ben Radford – Investigation Workshop 1
  • Saturday 1:00 pm – Ben Radford – Investigation Workshop 2
  • Saturday 10:00 pm – George Hrab – Geologic Podcast LIVE!
  • Sunday 2:30 pm – Various – Wait, Wait, Don’t Fool Me!

All schedules are subject to change, of course.

UStream Chat
The streaming video has a chatroom associated with it. If you are viewing the video on UStream or on the Skeptrack site, you will see it right there. If you are an experienced user of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) you may want to connect to it directly using an IRC client. You can do so with this information:

  • Server: chat1.ustream.tv
  • Port: 6667
  • Channel: #skeptrack
  • Login: Use the username & password you set up at Ustream.tv

Other Streaming Video

The main events at Dragon*Con are not live-streamed, but a handful of other events at Dragon*Con will be live streamed, depending on what track they are in and who is involved. So far this year these include:

If you know of other live streams, let me know and I’ll update this section.

Live Updates via Social Media

As the conference gets underway, the attendees will be talking about it online. This can give you a real-time glimpse into what is going on, even if you are not attending. Skeptics (like anyone else) use a variety of social media sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr and so on. But I am going to focus on Twitter here.

The reason for this focus is twofold. First, there seems to be a critical mass of skeptics and other Dragon*Con attendees that use Twitter regularly. Almost all of the participants in Skeptrack have Twitter accounts, and about half of the guests of Dragon*Con as a whole are active there.

The second reason is posts on Twitter are, by default, public to all. Unlike services like Facebook where you usually have to previously become “friends” with someone to see what they are writing about, on Twitter anyone can see anyone’s posts. This allows aggregation techniques to be used to see a unified stream of activity quite easily. In other words, simply by executing an appropriate Twitter search and hitting refresh periodically, you can get a robust feed of events without even having a Twitter account yourself. Read on for tips.

If you do have a Twitter account, there a few key accounts you should follow for important updates. The accounts @DragonCon and @Daily_Dragon are both official and post announcements from the organizers of the convention. The account @Skeptrack is operated by Derek Colanduno for announcements about the skeptic track.

Twitter Lists

I could go on listing other accounts you should follow, but this blog post would become very tedious. Fortunately Twitter has a feature where you can create lists of accounts for others to use. I have created a public Twitter list of Skeptrack participants. Follow that for all the scoop on Skeptrack.

Depending on how you use Twitter, you can either subscribe directly to that list, or use them as a way to find key Twitter users to follow yourself (by clicking “Following” in upper right). In any case, they are gold mine of people who will be talking about the show.

Even If You Don’t Use Twitter

Whether or not you are a Twitter user, you can still take advantage of all the content simply as a reader. One way to do this is just to navigate to the lists mentioned above and refresh every so often.

You can also cast a wider net Twitter’s public search function. Many folks will be tagging their posts with a hashtag such as #dragoncon, so you can see all the discussion by searching carefully. I recommend this search which picks up all posts tagged as well as the @DragonCon and @Daily_Dragon accounts. Simply keep that page open and pick refresh every so often. This is a great way to keep up with what is going on at the con.

Location Services

Another aspect of social media that has become prominent just recently are what are now called location based services. These are services that make publishing your current location a key part of the experience of communicating with your friends. These include Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt and others.

These services could be very useful, especially after hours at TAM. Dragon*Con is spread across five main (and several other) hotels in downtown Atlanta. It can take quite a while to rendezvous with someone at a common location. By using a location based service to see where your friends are, you could save lots of time and find out where the action is.

Based on my experiences living in Atlanta, Foursquare has far more subscribers and venues already set up here. It also seems to have better support for more types of phones than some of the other services.

There are several venues for the hotels as well as for the fan tracks themselves, rather than maintain a big list of links here I’ve created a list on Foursquare containing the venues for Dragon*Con. Feel free to suggest ones I have missed.

If you are new to Foursquare, be sure to play! You might get some hard-to-get badges out of it. Last year at Dragon*Con 2010 one of the first Super Swarms that ever happened in Atlanta was during Dragon*Con.

Wireless Connectivity On-Site

Now none of this social media stuff is going to be useful without wireless connectivity. Atlanta is a major American city so of course it has coverage under all of the nationwide cellular services including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. It also has 4G coverage, both WiMax and LTE (details below). So you have a number of options to stay connected. Let’s start with the free stuff.

Free WiFi

There are a few locations you can get free WiFi, if you are willing to venture outside the comforts of the five host hotels. Keep in mind the host hotels are business hotels (not resorts) and they stay in business by selling services to convention goers. So the wireless internet is definitely not free for all inside the hotels (with a few exceptions).

I did some exploring and found eight easily accessible locations near the convention where you can get free WiFi. These are perfect for a daily photo upload or blog post, but will definitely not keep you connected 24/7. Please keep in mind these are all associated with businesses, and they would appreciate your support. At least buy a Coke or a coffee or something before using their bandwidth. Also keep in mind most of these businesses are not open 24 hours. I’ve included their phone numbers so you can check.

I’ve put all the info including the hours I could determine into a custom Google Map you can see at left above. Click it for a fully interactive map with phone numbers, access point names and operating hours for each business. If for some reason you can’t access the map, here’s the basic rundown:

  • Caribou Coffee in SunTrust Plaza, 303 Peachtree (“Caribou”) (404) 681-0208
  • Caribou Coffee in Peachtree Center, 231 Peachtree (“Caribou”) (404) 688-3355
  • Corner Bakery Cafe at 270 Peachtree St. (“CornerBakeryWiFi”) (404) 215-9000
  • Fire of Brazil / Jalapeno Charlies at 218 Peachtree (“Fire of Brazil &Jalapeno Charlie”) (404) 525-5255
  • Hooters at 209 Peachtree St. (“Hooters”) (404) 522-9464
  • Marriott offers one day of free WiFi, see below.
  • Peachtree Center Food Court, 303 Peachtree (“PeachtreeCenter”)
  • Rays in the City at 240 Peachtree St. (“Rays Guest Wireless”) (404) 524-9224
  • Sheraton offers two hours of free WiFi in lobby, see below.
  • Starbucks at 240 Peachtree St. NOT the ones in the hotels! (“attwifi”) (404) 589-4522

Note that almost all of these require you to log in using a web browser (and accept the terms of service) before using the wireless. Keep that in mind if you are there to check your email or Twitter – you’ll have to open a browser first to get connected.

WiFi is a bit more complicated at the hotels. Because Dragon*Con is spread across five official hotels, and each is run by a different company, the WiFi details vary. I’ve got the details below, they are accurate as of August 26th.

Be warned: the hotel WiFi systems, particularly the ones with partially free options (Marriott, Sheraton) are bound to be overloaded during the convention. Don’t expect them to be super fast at all times. I definitely would not plan on streaming video from your fan table 24/7 unless you’ve made special arrangements.

Atlanta Hilton WiFi (Skeptrack location)

The Hilton runs its own WiFi and has coverage throughout the building. The SSID is “hhonors” like most Hilton properties. Prices are:

  • One hour – $5.95
  • One day (512kb up/1024kb down) – $12.95
  • One day (1024kb up/2048kb down) – $15.95

You can bill it to your room (if you are staying at the Hilton) or use a credit card. My experience is that the Hilton WiFi works pretty well in the lobby and meeting areas, but others have said that it can be very poor in some of the meeting rooms.

Note there are also access points named “Hilton-Meeting” which are used for events that contract with the hotel for free WiFi. Dragon*Con is not one of those events, so don’t bother with those access points.

Atlanta Marriott Marquis WiFi

This hotel is directly across Courtland Street from the Hilton and is often the center of evening activities due to its large atrium lobby and many bars. Their wireless is provided by iBAHN. (SSID: ibahn). If you are Marriott Rewards Gold or Platinum Elite member, you get free wireless.

Also, and this is new since last year, you appear to get one day (24 hours) of free wireless in the Marriott when you first access it. After your first day is up, the public area rates are as follows, payable by credit card:

  • 15 minutes – $3.95 + $0.25 each add’l minute
  • One day – $9.95

Inside the guest rooms, wireless is $12.95 per day, which includes Ethernet access and unlimited phone calls. You can roam onto the WiFi in the public areas as well.

However, I recommend you not pay the above rates. Why? iBAHN also supports users roaming from the following third-party WiFi providers:

Many of these providers have per-day or monthly subscription prices considerably lower than $12.95 or $9.95 per day. (For instance, I use Boingo sometimes at airports, and they offer a $7.95 per month subscription rate. T-Mobile has a $9.99 per month rate for those with phone contracts. There are other rates and plans including per-day rates that vary with location). You may already have an account with one of them. If not, set up an account on one of these other providers prior to arriving at the hotel. (AT&T, Boingo, BT OpenZone and T-Mobile seem well suited for home users, the others are very business oriented).

When you log in to the Marriott WiFi, click “Subscription Service” or “Roaming Partner” on the iBAHN login screen and click next. You can select your provider and use your username and password from the other service to log in. You’ll definitely save money.

Note that like the Hilton, the Marriott has separate access points for meetings which provide free WiFi to participants, these are named “ibahn_conference”. Don’t bother with these, as Dragon*Con has not paid the Marriott to enable them.

Hyatt Regency Atlanta WiFi

The Hyatt provides it’s own wireless (SSID: hyatt) in the lobby and meeting areas. The T-Mobile hotspot coverage which was here last year is gone.

Hyatt’s pricing has been simplified since last year. It is $12.95 for 24 hours of use, per device. Hyatt explicitly disclaims their own WiFi coverage in their meeting rooms, which are mostly on the lower levels of the hotel, so be warned.

Boingo also claims to cover the Hyatt (SSID: swisscom) according to their website. However, when I was in the building last week, I didn’t pick up any hotspots under that name. Your mileage may vary.

Sheraton WiFi

This hotel has a partially free WiFi (SSID: “Link @ Sheraton”). It gives you access for 2 hours and covers the lobby areas. Keep in mind the caveat though – as a free option, it is bound to be overloaded a bit.

After the first 2 hours of free access, it is $11.95 for 24 hours per device.

Sheraton also has a nice open access computer area one floor above the lobby, with eight computers that guests can use. I would expect these to be overloaded with users during the convention, but might be useful in a pinch.

There is also a separate WiFi in the rooms, also $11.95 for 24 hours. These access points don’t seem to cover into the lobby or meeting room areas, so I wouldn’t plan on using them while outside your room.

Westin WiFi

The Westin has WiFi in the lobby and meeting room areas (SSID: “Westin Lobby”). They have tiers of service as follows:

  • Standard (1 MBps down/1 MBps up) $14.95 per day
  • Premium (2 MBps down/2 MBps up) $18.95 per day

They only accept credit cards when you log in.

Like the Marriott and Hilton, the Westin also runs other access points under other names for specific groups meeting in the hotel. Those will not be useful for Dragon*Con participants.

Consider Tethering

Clearly WiFi could be costly, depending on how you need to use it.

If you want to use your laptop without WiFi, you might look into ways to take advantage of your data-capable cellphone. This is commonly called tethering and can be very convenient if your provider supports it. Some require an extra monthly fee, consult your provider’s web site. Note that some don’t use the term “tethering”, for instance Sprint calls this practice “Phone as a Modem” in their billing scheme.

But what if your cell phone data provider doesn’t support tethering, or their solution isn’t compatible with your laptop OS or phone? There still may be a way. Lately I’ve been using a program called PDANet by June Fabrics and am quite happy with it. It supports most of the popular smartphone types and can turn the data connection you are already paying for into a laptop internet connection via USB or Bluetooth. You might give it a look.

Again, keep in mind that these hotel buildings are large steel and concrete structures, and some of the meeting rooms are fairly deep inside the buildings. Your 3G or 4G phone might not get a good signal down there. So don’t assume you’ll be able to use a tethered connection in a particular place until you’ve tested it.

If you don’t have a data capable phone or you can’t make tethering work, are you still out of luck? Perhaps not. Read on.

4G (WiMax and LTE) Coverage in Atlanta

In the last two years another option has appeared. A wide-area broadband service commonly called “4G” (but technically known as WiMax or LTE) has been deployed in a number of US cities, and Atlanta is one of them. These towers are shared by a number of internet providers, which means you can use 4G in Atlanta on a number of different services including the following:

If you happen to have service from one or more of these providers at home, I recommend you consider bringing your device with you to Atlanta. If you do not already have service, you might consider picking it up before you head to the show. Some of the providers even offer a “Day Pass” option that does not require you to have an ongoing contract, you just pay for the days on which you use it.

Once again, a caveat. 4G signals, particular WiMax, are notorious for poor penetration of buildings. Don’t assume you’ll get good 4G signals deep inside the lower levels of the convention hotel. We use it pretty successfully in the Skeptrack room and other rooms with windows (see below).

Rent your 4G!

Understandably, you may be dubious of signing up for a new wireless service just for this show. Or even if you are willing, these services are not nationwide and may not be available in your home town. There is another option!

There are at least two services I know of which will rent you a 4G capable device you can connect to your laptop or use as a portable hotspot. They are:

Several folks I know have had good success using these services to rent devices for use at conventions in Las Vegas.

4G Coverage in Downtown Atlanta

Again, be warned that wireless signals often fade deep inside the hotels. But they should be useful in places like the Skeptrack room which have windows.

I have personally tested the WiMax coverage at the Skeptrack room, and I was able to get 10 Megabits per second of download speed using a Macintosh, and 3.5 Megabits per second using my Android smartphone. This is considerably faster than most hotel WiFi providers. This is, in part, because of the large windows in the front of that room. Again, keep in mind that Dragon*Con is going to bring a huge number of people to downtown Atlanta all at once, so performance might be different during the convention.

Beware relying on it deeper within the hotel buildings. I found the speeds attainable in the Hyatt lobby and in the lower levels of the Marriott Marquis lobby were particularly poor.

Don’t Forget Power!

If you’re planning to live blog, live tweet and so on at the show, be mindful of your power requirements!

Unlike TAM in Las Vegas, power outlets are a little more accessible in the various track rooms at Dragon*Con. I’ve had my laptop plugged in in both the Skeptrack room and in other rooms last year. But as happens in airports, the available outlets might get claimed before you get there.

Even if you are using a mobile such as an iPhone for these purposes, constant tweeting and communication will eat up your battery much faster than normal phone use. The bottom line is: plan ahead. If your devices have removable batteries, buy extras and bring them with you! Be very diligent about recharging all your batteries each night so you start each day ahead of the game.

Bring extra charger cables for all your devices if you have them. If your devices can charge via a USB connection or from wall power, bring both kinds of cable. You never know when you might be short of power and sitting next to someone who is willing to let you charge from their laptop or notebook computer.

For portable devices that can charge from a USB port, there are a number of options in the form of an external battery packs. I found a couple of options on Amazon.com in my research. Splash makes this one that can charge two USB devices at once and includes a battery. It recharges from a USB cable, and comes with a set of adapters to allow it to power a number of different brands of cell phone and so on.

I have the Tekkeon TekCharge MP-1550 which is similar, but only has one output. The difference with this product is it uses replaceable AA batteries, which means its capacity is limited only by the number of rechargeable batteries you can keep handy. But on the downside, I’ve had bad luck using this device with certain phones which are very sensitive to voltage levels.

Your solution will depend on the devices you are using and what batteries they use.

Printing Added Since Original

If you need to get something printed while at the convention, there are at least two different FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) print shops right in the host hotels. Perfect for running off some extra copies of that flyer you wanted to hand out. (Bring your file in a common format like PDF on a thumb drive, or email it in).

Here’s their contact info:

Hilton

Hours: 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm Saturday, 11a to 5pm Sunday
Phone: (404) 221-6940
E-mail: usa0661@fedex.com

Marriott

Hours: 7am to 7pm Monday to Saturday, 9am to 5pm Sunday
Phone: (404) 586-6190
E-mail: usa0363@fedex.com

Although some FedEx locations offer free WiFi, neither of these do.

Conclusion & Notes

There are plenty of digital resources for the connected skeptic attending Dragon*Con 2010. Make good use of them to maximize the value you get out of the weekend.

Please comment or email or tweet me if you notice anything I got wrong or have additional information.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

Updated Aug 29: Fixed links to Pocket Program to go to the 8/29 revision that fixed a few errors; added note about alleged Boingo coverage at Hyatt.

Updated Aug 31: Added printing locations.

About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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