The Virtual DAC 2020

I have attended the Design Automation Conference (DAC) occasionally for the past decade – maybe every second or third year. The DAC is typically mostly about the lower levels and the backend of hardware design, but there is always something to learn about virtual platforms and related topics closer to my interests. This year, like last year, I got a presentation (and poster) accepted for the Designer track. The DAC organizers held out hope for a physical conference for quite a while (back in early March it seemed rather unlikely that this would still be with us in July…). However, a physical conference was not to be, and the DAC switched to a virtual format in early May.

Virtualizing the DAC

The conference held out hope for an in-person event during the early Covid-19 days in March and April. This did mean that going virtual was a bit hurried since the organizers only had a couple of months to choose a platform, inform speakers about the changes, get speakers trained on the platform, and what I can only assume is an enormous amount of background work to rejig the event with sponsors and exhibitors for the show floor.

Landing page of the virtual DAC 2020

All the presentations for the DAC 2020 that I looked at were done as recordings. Using recordings makes sense to avoid technical problems, especially for presentation sessions where you have five speakers inside of an hour. The chance of someone having a problem as you switch between speakers with ten-minute slots is basically 100%.

The posters were presented as downloadable files, which did not work out as well. Instead of one big image, poster presenters were told to upload a slide set of about ten slides, which the audience could then view. This works better on a screen compared to scrolling around a single large image (and honestly, many posters are typically a set of slides on a big sheet of paper anyway). However, the interface did not present the posters as obviously as the presentation videos.

Pathable Platform

The DAC used a virtual event platform from a company called Pathable. What I describe here is how the DAC used it for the Designer track that I participated in. It might well look different when used for other events.

Each session had its own landing page, listing the talks:

A problem with this view is that the list of talks is a narrow list, and to see all talks, you had to scroll. For the poster session, this was a total disaster as each page would scroll to  show some 20 posters – and then there were additional “next” and “previous” buttons at the bottom of the page to bring up most pages of posters. This disadvantages the presenters who have high-numbered posters, since it takes more clicks to get to them.

Clicking on a presentation or poster brings up a dedicated page. For presentations, the video would be started by the viewer – all the talks in the session became available when the session started, and it was up to the audience to go into each page and view the video. Alongside the video, there was a set of tabs for chat, people (never figured out what that one was for), polls, and files. The primary interaction between presenters and the audience was the chat stream on this page.

Example of a video showing alongside the chat for one of the presentations in my session:

It was a bit confusing with both a top-level chat for the session, and one for each particular presentation. It was pretty obvious though that the presentation one was the one to use. Mixing questions on multiple topics in the global chat would have been super-confusing. Already, since the per-presentation chat was just a sequence, we would have questions come in and the presenter answering an earlier question after more questions arrived. A threaded chat model would have been better. Still, it did work as a platform for questions and answers, and I did learn some things in the chat – just like I would have had in a live Q&A.  

The files tab was used to include the posters that came along with our talks, and I am not sure if anyone would have found them without prompting. The presentations with posters did not join the general poster session, which would have exposed the posters more.

Going to the pure poster sessions, the page for each poster left most of the page unused, since there was no video to show. At least the files were presented clearly in their own pane, separate from the discussion (which was the name used for the chat here). Note that the discussion became global across the whole session. Not sure what was going on.

What I would liked to see was a better way to keep multiple chats open on a standard 1920×1080 screen and seeing activity in all at one. The way the Pathable system is laid out today, that just did not work (making the browser window smaller switched to a narrow layout that was not particularly useful). Some kind of notification from a tab that new chats popped up would have helped to keep up with the four simultaneous chats I got into for my session.

Not Quite the same as Live

The biggest issue I have with a virtual event is that it not as immersive as a real physical event. When you do go travel to a certain location, you are there, and it is much easier to focus on the event compared to looking at a screen for a few hours from home. Also, you miss the serendipitous meetings in the hallways with old friends and acquaintances.

The biggest issue I had was with the time zones. The event, quite naturally, ran on US West Coast time, making most of the day rather inconvenient from a European perspective. It must have been brutal for people from India or other places in Asia. This made it hard to really take part, as the event would start after the end of the normal working day in Europe, and run through the evening into the night. You do not have that problem when attending a conference live.

Good things with Virtual

There are also benefits from a virtual event – in my case, I only needed to take parts of a couple of days off from my vacation to participate, instead of blowing a week-long hole in the schedule to get to the US and back.

It was possible to go back and review the video of a talk multiple times. The chats are also persistent, and thus you can review questions and answers after the end of the session. Chats for answers is also a bit more precise than what you get when talking to someone live, where you then need to remember what they said and take notes. Chats also let you have multiple conversations going at the same time, which is rather hard to in-person.

While I am a strong supporter of the theory that running a virtual event live-only with no recording makes it more compelling and real, the recording plus chat session format used by the DAC works almost as well. The chat provides the compelling live event, and a recorded presentation is a good way to get the discussion started.

Finally, I must say that a good feature of the Pathable platform is that all registered participants have a page showing their name, affiliation, photo, and bio. This made it really easy to understand the background of the people asking questions and presenting talks, which is often something that is hard to catch in an impromptu person-to-person setting. It is something that any virtual event that wants participants to interact should support!  

Well Done, DAC!

In any case, despite some grumbling about the system, I commend the people organizing the DAC for not just giving up but instead making the event virtual. That does preserve the continuity of the event, and did provide at least some of the educational and informational value of the live event.

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