About Virtual Events

Just like most people who can, I have been working from home since March 2020 due to Covid-19. Now that we are hopefully seeing the end of the pandemic in the west, it is worth looking back at the conference-from-home aspect of work-from-home. I have seen our Simics training, the Design Automation Conference (DAC), the Design and Verification Conference (DVCon) Europe, commercial training events, talks at industry conferences, guest lectures, and multiple internal Intel events go virtual.  It has been interesting to see how this has worked out, and it seems to me that we are starting to see some good recurring patterns. People have adapted and figured out how to use video meeting technology better and better.

Live is Life

One important choice for a virtual event is whether to do live presentations or recorded videos. Personally, I think that live presentations are better. Sure, there is a higher risk for technical issues, but the total experience is much better when you can ask a speaker questions in the middle of the talk. Doing something live also gets the “nerve” of a live presentation – the speaker has to be more on her toes to provide a good talk, compared to a recorded session where you can do multiple takes and fix things in editing.

Virtual live presentations do work best when the speaker is on video – even if it is just a little image in a corner of the screen. Just having a voice just isn’t as engaging. It also means that the speaker has to focus on the talk, just like doing a presentation in front of people.

Presenting with video does require that the speakers have somewhere decent-looking to present from, or that the presentation platform offers the ability to screen out the background. A quality camera (not just a laptop built-in camera, but a dedicated external camera) is definitely recommended. Personally, I have rather belatedly found space to have a dedicated office which I to some extent designed for live video. With a nice bookshelf strategically positioned in the background and a couple of studio lights that can give a nice warm glow to my face – even as a winter-bleached Swede with a skin the color of alabaster. Good lighting is a quite simple and cheap yet potentially transformative aspect for video calls.

Having recordings to review post-event is definitely helpful, since it lets you go back and check out the talks you missed due to multiple tracks, etc. Some talks are so full of information that you re-viewing them helps get it all. DVCon Europe made the creative move to turn the recordings of the conference into something sold post-conference, in a move reminiscent of the old times when conference proceedings books were sold post-conference (I did get a few of those books back in my PhD student days).

Make a Virtual Trip

As a participant in a virtualized event, it is important to consider the event as the primary job. One of the benefit of in-person events is that you can focus on the contents being presented and interaction with other participants – with little less opportunity to get distracted by emails, instant messages, or meetings at work. In a virtual event, it is much easier to let those distractions slip in since it is all there on the computer anyway, and if you listen to a boring talk you can just take the chance to check some work emails… and then you have lost the engagement. Thus, tuning out everyday work and clearing the calendar for the duration of the conference is important to get the full benefits of attending an event.

It also only makes sense to attend events in a time zone close to your own. For that full immersive experience, you want the event to replace a day in the office – not to be tacked-on as an evening or early morning extracurricular activity. It might be tempting to sign up for an interesting conference on another continent that normally would be too much cost or time to attend since it all just virtual anyway. But in practice, that is likely to be of low value unless you can really spend the whole day virtually in that other time zone.

Platforms – Schedule and People

I have seen quite a few different platforms being used to manage and run events. The platform job seems to be broken into a few parts. First, the work that is done offline, before the event starts:

Tracking registered attendees – the platform should let you browse who else is attending, check out their bios, with links to whatever content a particular attendee is contributing. The platform used by the DAC did a really good job of this. It put some background behind the names on the screen, which helped interaction in discussions. This is useful even for internal events inside a company like Intel – with 100k employees, I definitely do not know everyone. Honestly, such information would be really useful to augment an in-person event as well.

Schedule management – for a large sprawling conference with many tracks, I appreciate the systems that let you review all sessions, select the sessions to attend, and bookmark them for you. Marking interesting talks when reviewing the program is really handy, as you do not then have to track this in some other system. To make the schedule part really work, it should provide instant links to whatever presentation system is used to present the actual contents. Just like biographies, a schedule manager would be useful for an in-person event (and I have seen attempts at this in the past, even if they never worked very well in practice).

Downloads – presentations and papers should be easy to download. DVCon did a good job of this, with a single bulk download option (equivalent to what you get in the in-person conference). The hardest part of this is really behind the scenes, with the organizers hounding the presenters to get their materials finished and delivered (and cleared for publication, in the case of presenters from enterprises with internal review processes).

It appears that there are a surprisingly large number of platforms available for the conference management function, with different takes on which information to manage and how to structure the presentation. One recurring issue is that the platforms have plenty of features that are just not being used by the conference – in this case, the functions should ideally be hidden, where in practice you can click around a large set of web pages with no information or functionality.

Platforms – Presentation

There are two main types of presentation systems:

  • Using an existing online meeting system such as Skype, Teams, Zoom, or Webex.
  • Using a specialized delivery platform such as ON24.

Most people I have talked tend to prefer the first category, presenting slides using standard simple screensharing. It makes the conference work like a normal meeting, with the least training and adjustment needed. I personally rather dislike screen sharing, since it increases the risk of accidentally revealing something from a participant desktop, getting popups showing recent emails, and similar information leakage and/or disturbances. Animations tend to work poorly when sharing screen, as fades are turned into a few jerky steps. I prefer being at least able to upload a presentation and show it “from the server”, like Skype and Teams lets you do (even though Teams is still pretty bad this even in mid-2021).

The specialized platforms take some more work to get set up with, but they do carry several advantages. Especially when it comes to having the event organizers managing talks “from the backend”. I used ON24 as a conference organizer for an internal event, and it was quite a revelation – the backend is really powerful. You can see attendance minute by minute during a session and track overall audience statistics. It is rather clunky for the presenters, but it also makes sure that things flow smoothly once set up.

An added advantage of having a system like ON24 that forces you to upload slides ahead of time is that you know the slides are done and ready to be presented. If your computer misbehaves, you can always log in from another machine and run the presentation. It does make the conference overall run smoother. There is no risk of anything popping up on your local machine or inadvertently revealing something confidential.

Having a managed system with a moderator with administrative power also means that it is technically possible to just shown down a speaker that overruns their time.  Not that I like to do that, but having a technical switch is a lot better than trying to tell someone to stop talking.

I like systems that provide a specific function for questions and answers – you clearly separate questions from general chatter, and you can download the list of questions and who asked them after the talk. When questions are handled as part of a general meeting chat, a moderator has to be very nimble to pick them up from the constant flow, and the record is not as easy to maintain as there is no way to type an answer to a specific question or mark a question as answered. Obviously, such a function can be built into meeting systems as well – I have seen this done in Zoom a couple of times.

 The managed systems have some drawbacks too. For example, screen sharing tools normally make it possible to use annotation tools (to me, Skype presents the gold standard here, nothing else comes close), virtual laser pointers, or even just the mouse pointer to point out things on slides. This functionality is useful and helps get the message across – but it also tends to be unavailable outside of direct screen sharing. 

For the video of the presenter, the platform should really provide a way to hide the background. Most people do not have super-clean broadcasting environments in their home office, and the ability to mask out the background is a key feature of modern tools. The job that such functions do is typically OK, even though they tend to struggle with headsets, hats, or headrests that poke out behind a speaker’s head.

Chit-Chat

When you are broadcasting to 100s of people it is clearly not possible to let everyone talk… but it actually appears that having an open chat window works. Not so much for actual questions, but to inject some life like virtual claps, small notes of encouragement and appreciation, etc. If the audience is small, like below 50 people, I have seen real side discussions start out in the chat (and then be taken offline for deeper inquiry).

Another observation in support of the open chat channel come from online live “streamer” sessions, where a continuous stream (typically a firehose) of comments are a core part of the experience. Seeing other people react live makes the event more live – even if you have no chance to reply to anything said or even time to read it all. This modus of operation could be translated into academic and industrial conferences as well.

Hallway Talk

The main component that is missing from virtual conferences is the hallway talk.

Using a virtual 3D world like DVCon did is one way of solving this. It might feel strange, but there is definitely merit to the concept. Being able to “look around” and “move towards” people is a big plus. However, people can also just select not to log in at all… and thus disappear. In a real conference, you can usually chase someone down to talk to them. In a virtual conference, dropping out is all too easy. The times for the virtual get-together must also be clearly communicated to make sure there is a critical mass of people present. I believe there is still some work needed to make this work really well.

ArsTechnica pointed out that the 2021 Google I/O conference used a 2D game world to create a virtual exhibition floor, and from their description it sounds like maybe doing something that simple (from a graphics perspective) works just as well as 3D.

A simpler solution is to have chat sessions that go on after the end of a talk. This worked very well indeed at the DAC, and we have also used it internally at Intel. Having a group chat for people interested in a certain session or talk is a decent approximation of going up to talk to a speaker after a talk.

Yet another variant is to go to live video conferencing. This was a nice surprise after I gave a guest lecture at Uppsala University last month. When I did a couple of video guest lectures last year, the call just ended after I was done with by part. This year, many students just stayed on in the meeting, and kept up a conversation for almost an hour (until I had to jump off of that call to get to the next one on the calendar). My sense is that the students have figured out how to add some social interaction to video lectures, after more than a year of mostly-from-home education.

Final Words

Even as we are starting to hopefully see what looks like the possible beginning of the end of the pandemic and do-everything-from-home, we are also getting pretty good at virtual events. Personally, I have several lined up for late summer and beyond. In some cases, organizers are being conservative and cautious, and in other cases doing larger virtual events appears to be a better alternative to smaller local in-person events.

As with everyone else, I assume we are going to continue to see a mix of both going forward, with especially company-internal events going virtual for their extended reach. I would hope that industry and academic events will get back to physical, as that really is a key part of the value of them – getting to know people for real requires meeting in person, that is just how the world works.

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