The TED conference begins in Vancouver tomorrow, where more than 70 speakers will take to a glossy stage and perform short talks on big ideas.

You may never go to TED — what with the $8,500 US price tag and application process just to attend — but you've probably seen a TED Talk online, where such unlikely candidates as a Swedish statistician and a "power posing" social psychologist have won the internet over the years.

This is the annual conference where those talks happen, with 1,350 attendees flocking in from 58 countries to a convention centre overlooking the Pacific, to bathe their brains in the "ideas worth spreading" (TED's tagline) before talks are posted online in coming months.

TED has been criticized as elitist, or so focused on a slick show it turns scientists into "low-level entertainers, like circus performers."

But ten years since TED's first videos went viral, the conference is still selling out, and the speakers — including Monica Lewinsky last year on cyberbullying — are still getting people talking.

Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky speaks at TED2015 — Truth and Dare, Session 9, March 19, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. (James Duncan Davidson/TED)

What to expect this year

The TED event moved north three years ago, leaving its Silicon Valley-adjacent roots in California, drawn to Vancouver in part by the stunning ocean view, organizers said.

(To be clear, there are also 16,000 independently-organized TEDx events each year, but this is the big show that attracts famous faces and the "world's thought leaders," as Tourism Vancouver put it.)

In name, the TED Conference — which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — first happened in 1984, but the TED Talks became an online phenomenon in 2006, when the first six videos were posted to watch for free.

Al Gore was on the stage that year, talking about climate change just before An Inconvenient Truth came out, and he's back this year, in a session titled "Nightmare?," a contrast to the overall theme of "Dream."

There are other big names, including Shonda Rhimes, the TV mega-producer who created Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and the prime minister of Bhutan, a country known for its Gross National Happiness index.

You can also expect a lot of cutting-edge technology on display, with a host of augmented and virtual reality talks on the list. 

Rajiv Maheswaran

Rajiv Maheswaran talks about spatio-temporal pattern recognition in basketball, aka 'the math behind basketball's wildest moves,' at TED 2015 in Vancouver. (James Duncan Davidson/TED)

'Like opening a surprise present'

But the list of TED's most popular talks ever isn't dominated by celebrities or politicians.

One winning formula seems to be deep expertise mixed with a personal revelation — the neuroanatomist describing her own stroke.

It's hard to know in advance what will be jaw-dropping talk, says TED veteran Steve Rosenbaum, who will attend his 12th TED conference this week and helps welcome newcomers.

"Part of the joy of the event is it's a little like opening a surprise present," said the New York-based CEO of Waywire.

"You really don't know what's inside until the person is on stage."

Adrianne Haslet-Davis

Ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis lost her left leg in the Boston Marathon bombing and danced on stage again for the first time at TED 2014 in Vancouver with Christian Lightner. (James Duncan Davidson/TED)

Why pay to go?

So why fork over more than $11,000 Cdn to a nonprofit foundation to attend, when the best talks will eventually make their way online for free?

Like any conference, interesting things happen in the in-between spaces, and at TED the person next to you at lunch could be a brain scientist or world-class musician, says Rosenbaum.

But it's not about "networking" in terms of scoring specific business opportunities, he insists. "It's just not that event."

There's something about being there — gasping and cheering with a thousand others in the theatre — that can't be matched by an online stream, he said.

"I live in New York, so I always wonder why do people go to Times Square for New Year's Eve, when they can watch it on TV? Well, because it's different being there," he said.

"It will echo in your soul in a way that's pretty special."

TED hallways

Conference rules prevent TEDsters from taking pictures or tweeting about who else is in attendance without permission, but the official Flickr set shows some famous faces in the crowd. (Bret Hartman/TED)

How to watch live

For the masses, of course, being there is not an option. And TED.com doesn't livestream the talks for non-attendees to watch from home.

In Vancouver, though, the Central Branch of the public library will be livestreaming most of the talks for free, along with the Kitsilano and Renfrew branches.

Cineplex movie theatres across Canada are also showing a livestream of the first session, which includes Rhimes and starts at 5 p.m. PT Monday. That's a paid ticket, $19.95 for an adult admission.

And, free things come to those with patience and broadband. TED releases one talk a day online, all year long.