This mini-article was written in April 2020, when it became clear that academic conferences would not be the same as before. In fact and hinsight, that is exactly what happened, with few conferences being canceled and large majority being moved online. Conference organizers went beyond what I imagined in April 2020, for instance, by using emerging 2D world interfaces that linked to video calls, presentations, and other interactive social experiences. We will see more of this kind of innovation in 2021, I think.
What if conferences would be virtual?
Background: In the context of the Corona crisis, many conferences and symposia might be canceled as a physical face-to-face conference and instead be held digitally as a virtual conference. This short document compiles a few ideas what organizers could do.
Despite the obvious disadvantages of not running a “physical” conference (presentation of demos, interactivity and art, F2F networking, random encounters, dinners and drinks, “live atmosphere”), there are benefits of running a “digital” conference: accessibility, sustainability, archiving communications, outreach, and diversity. Quit explicitly, conference costs and resources are not expected to change too much, as planning and operating a virtual conference is similar or more work and will cost a lot of money (compared to “free” Internet services). For the participating institutes and individuals, cost reductions (fuel, accommodation, food) and health benefits are expected (jetlag, travel risks, travel-related illnesses). A special mention here to accessibility: Conferences are difficult to navigate and consume – especially for impaired members of the community for whom getting to, standing in crowded ball rooms, listening to speakers, and viewing far-away slides is difficult. Conference mobility is a serious issue, the more the large the conference is. Yes, there are provisions, telepresence robots, mentors, helpers, volunteers, but this is seldom good enough for an equal conference experience and participation. Then: travel and budget restrictions, visa problems and so on.
Let’s focus on what might change to the better.
Quality of content: Given that the content of the scientific works (papers, posters, etc.) will be same as before, the focus should be on the quality of presentations. Perhaps a vetting process needs to be in place to ensure a great experience for the remote attendants. This is one of the aspects that make a virtual conference not really low-effort.
Interactivity: For a digital format, we will need to change how we interact in the context of a conference. Most interactions will, due to bandwidth limitations, be written and textual. This has benefits in understandability (no noise, more inclusive to non-native speakers) and also in following-up, referring-to and building of longer lasting conversations and hopefully collaborations. Presentations will need to change towards pre-recorded, more produced and choreographed moments that are possibly more polished and valuable to archive and preserve. At the same time, allowing for a variety of quality presentations can help speakers fit the presentation to their own preferences, abilities, and not least content.
Diversity, accessibility, …: All better than the current larger conference formats, perhaps on-par with current smaller conferences, not expected to be worse at all.
Networking: …is not everything. Although being high on the list of reasons to have and attend conferences, networking is only a side-effect of great content, effective communication, and proximity–all of which can be replicated online. An open and well-moderated “digital” conference format can help lower barriers for interaction especially for younger members of the community and allow them to get access to mentoring, advice, and new ideas.
Outreach, dissemination: Conference talks on YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, other social media? No problem. The presence of scientific content on social media is probably a societal good and will be more important in the future. In other words, academia is lagging behind current publishing trends and it is time to catch up with how content is consumed.
How to do it?
Technology: The obvious point here is digital communications technology that is prevalent in the current self-isolating times. There are surprisingly few tailored and directly applicable solutions to running a large, highly interactive conference, but it is not without hope. Two possibilities that I see are either a fully hosted off-the-shelf business conference solution, or a tailored solution that patches different services together under a common, well-designed roof. For (1), managed solutions like WorkCast or similar might be suitable, for (2), a combination of YouTube live-streaming and Slack or other communication tools are possible. The choice depends on requirements, size, duration, and budget.
Operations: A digital conference needs lots of preparation and live action in terms of content moderation, speaker and participant facilitation, tech and production support. This will cost (time, money, nerves, …), but it is worth spending the effort.
Policy: Clear name policy, no pseudonyms, open communications, and well-maintained information channels during the conference.
What could be beyond the normal experience?
Time zones are a problem with respect to traveling; for a virtual conference, participants residing in diverse time zones can seemingly be a tough problem. However, it might also be a possibility to run the conference as a 48-hour single-track marathon, or a longer (and spaced) or shorter (non-stop) multi-track experience. Depending on the size of the community and divergence of interests in the talks, the former or latter might be more appropriate–it is a balance between choice and presentation hopping, and a more immersive focused conference experience.
Talks and all presentations are recorded, including the discussions. So, anyone involved in organizing the conference could experience everything and not just the parts they were free to attend. All recordings should be open on a platform and archived for the next years. This is not only good for reference, but also for outreach and possibly for teaching: instead of letting students just read a paper, they could start with the conference presentation and have a much more inspired reading experience.
Panels could be organized more ad-hoc and with larger participation of experts (who are not part of the conference even)
Inter-locality: While the conference is a virtual experience, participants could provide aspects of locality with live or filmed lab tours, studio sessions and in-situ show-and-tell, that might be a much richer perspective on design research practice and emerging technology than what was possible before. We can show the spaces where we work every day and inspire others. There could be a format for field-recordings of contexts that are interesting to design for and generally more engagement with linked materials that supplement a talk or presentation.
Virtual poster sessions could become more social, interactive, and useful as short presentations in a posters track. Demos could involve prototypes being shown in the studio environment, with good lighting and low noise. Demos and prototype sessions could make use of linked materials to provide details of the prototype itself and focus on the process of making and researching. Similar for the art track.
Plenary events (keynotes, town halls, introduction, closing) could be more interactive, public to guests and start every conference day with short keynotes. Award ceremonies could be locally produced or completely scrapped.
Virtual workshops could organize around sessions of papers and use materials that are sent out with postal mail or locally produced beforehand. They could have the format of a break-out session after a series of talks to turn the ideas into creative momentum and bring together the local research groups around selected topics of the conference.
Local chapters could participate together (by state, community, country, continent). This could be organized in universities, bringing together a larger local community than possible before in a conference context.
Networking activities, dinners and drinks could be hosted virtually with enough time available to chat and break out into smaller groups. This could be used for doctoral consortium-type feedback sessions (think of 10-people tables at a wedding).