As Michael Oh watched his daughter easily navigate her iPod touch, he had an epiphany.
"I figured if she can learn it so intuitively that neurosurgeons would be able to figure it out," said Oh, who is a neurosurgeon.
He'll find out whether he was right when 3,500 neurosurgeons meet in Philadelphia in May for what he believes is the nation's first paperless scientific or medical convention.
When they register at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons meeting, the doctors will be given iPod touches already loaded with everything they'll need, including the program (165 pages last year), summaries of research presented at the meeting, advertising and information from exhibitors. Doctors will be able to use the iPods for messaging and for interacting with presenters during meetings. The convention also attracts 3,500 exhibitors and guests who will not be given the devices.
Not only will the iPods encourage community building, but they will save a lot of paper, said Oh, who heads a convention committee on the machines. The programs alone would have used more than half a million pages, he said, and most of those would have been left behind in hotel rooms.
"I think we will transform and really revolutionize how medical and scientific meetings are conducted," said Oh, who works at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh and already has an impressive tech track record. He helped develop a brain-surgery simulator that was a hit at previous meetings.
After watching his daughter, Oh discovered he was not the first to see the iPod's potential. The Canadian Film and Television Production Association went paperless at its meeting last year and plans to do it again next month. Conventiongoers can reuse their iPods.
Oh went to the 2009 film meeting to see how the technology would work. The neurosurgeons are a bigger group with more complex printing needs, but he thought they could do this, too. "The time is right to make this change," he said. His fellow doctors, most of whom have PDAs, a handheld computer, embraced the idea.
AANS bought the iPod touches and added $100 to the registration fee. Apple will have people from its local stores on hand to answer questions, and members of the young neurosurgeons committee will help, too. Oh, who is 41, said that's young for neurosurgeons, who typically train into their mid-thirties.
Convention experts say the trend toward greener behavior at meetings is taking hold, but the neurosurgeons are going farther than most.
"It's quite rare, but the march is on," said Brad Lewis, spokesman for the Professional Convention Management Association. He said session evaluations and handouts were virtually all online now. His own organization at its recent convention offered to download the program to PDAs. He does not know how many people attending did so, but the uptake for new technology is usually only about 20 percent the first year. People who still wanted paper got four small daily guides instead of a program, which ran 67 pages last year.
Pat Schaumann, president of Meeting IQ in St. Louis, said that devices offered many advantages but that there were some potential problems. They are expensive, and many conventions attract people from four generations, not all of whom are tech savvy. The small screens can also be difficult for people with vision problems.
Joanne Hulme, owner of Tents Party Rentals & Planners in Pottstown, said the recession had slowed some customers' ability to go green. And not every group is ready to do everything electronically.
"No paper's great as long as 100 percent of your people are ready to go," she said. "Not everybody has BlackBerrys. Not everybody brings laptops with them."