Tools for hosting Virtual Conferences 2020 — Highlights
In 2020, I participated in several virtual conferences and volunteered in some. This includes SIGGRAPH 2020, ICMI 2020, ISWC 2020 and ISS 2020. This article is a brief overview of the tools I was introduced to and learnt, and my thoughts on them as a presenter, attendee and a student volunteer. In this article, I will discuss some platforms, what they were used for and some of their notable common features. Finally, I would offer some useful tips and suggestions, from my experience, for both organizers and participants of future virtual conferences and events.
Many think that virtual conferences are not as good as physical conferences. At least, that is what I have heard most of the time during conferences I attended. Well, if I compare my previous year visits to physical conferences with the virtual experience, of course, I miss travelling around the world and collecting all the souvenirs and swags. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed all the virtual conferences that I attended this year.
To me, both physical and virtual conferences have their own pros and cons. For example, in past years, most conferences did not allow pre-recorded videos or live online video presentations; physical participation was the norm. Things are changing for good. While all of us are still getting used to fully virtual conferences, my prediction is that in the future, conferences would be hybrid. This is considering the cost of time + money it incurs to host and visit a conference in person. I am positive that considering the experiences gained through physical and virtual events, eventually, we all will fit well within the new hybrid (both in-person and virtual participants) conferences.
Which tools are better?
The most important topic in virtual conferences is which tools are better to use, and how to pick one over another. Well, the direct answer is there are many tools out there and all the conference that I attended, at least had one new software.
Let me share some of the tools that these conferences used in hosting attendees. In SIGGRAPH 2020, they used hubb.me and Zoom to deliver the conference. ICMI2020 used 3 platforms. Those were Zoom, SpatialChat and Ryver. ISWC2020 provided a login to registered participants to their conference program webpage which included relevant links to each session. As per tools they used Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Remo and Slack. In ISS2020, they used Zoom, Discord and hubbub. Further, I am helping with another symposium which will be held in which we are planning to use Cisco Webex.
Each of these tools has its own capabilities and limitations. This is why many conferences had to use more than one tool to host the entire conference. The vital fact to note is that all these conferences had a larger audience to mange. Thus, there were challenges which I am not going to discuss in this article.
Purposes of some tools
The reason to use multiple tools in one conference is to fill the gap in user networking. So most of the organizers wanted to have some kind of a tool that was fun + provided some opportunities for informal chat and networking. Currently, with Zoom, Webex and Google meet (all the video conferencing tools) cannot facilitate this due to various reasons. Of course, I am expecting in the future these software to provide event management features as plug-ins (extensions), so that participants can have a seamless experience where they don't need to switch between tools. However, for now, these tools are not offering such options.
Below I will categorize the tools by their use and discuss their features in brief.
All of the main conference sessions, paper sessions, workshops were hosted either on Zoom meetings or Zoom webinars (This could be done with Webex as well). Keynotes were mainly delivered in the format of Zoom webinars where attendees cannot view other attendees joined; Such that fewer interactions. Yet, there are features for raise hand (so that organiser could unmute the attendee, type questions etc). In ICMI2020 they even used breakout rooms on Zoom meetings. If the session is interaction heavy (like a workshop) it was conducted using Zoom meetings where each attendee can see each other, chat and talk.
Next, look at some program management software. hubb.me and Ryver can be used as tools to communicate users with relevant information and manage the sessions of the event. Simply put, if you have 10 sessions, and there are 10 different meeting links to those 10 sessions, then you need to have a platform you could share all these information with users. hubb. me has a calender like feature which allows users to create their own small schedule by adding the necessary session they want to attend. Ryver provides a similar feature which they call as 'tasks'. User can create their own tasks to keep a list of things that they want to do during the conference. Otherwise, you can create your own conference website with user log-in which I think is alright (KISS principle).
Discord and Slack are of course good tools for networking. However, the way this has used in conferences, which is running a meeting on Zoom and asking participants to post a question on the relevant Discord or Slack channel could be problematic. But this is a good way to encourage to create a discussion thread based on a particular session (or research paper). I experienced that participants could raise questions on multiple platforms if the conference is using many, eg: some can ask questions on Zoom while some others ask on Slack or Discord. This was managed through a student volunteer who watched both these spaces and posted all the question on another space for the session chair to see. I think managing Q&A using the video conference tool itself is much more appropriate. If the session is recorded Q&A will also be recorded (assuming session chair reiterate all the question that are in chat).
I like Discord and Slack as they have video and voice calling features, which enable you to have a quick video chat with individual participants. I used this feature quite frequently when networking with people.
Another thing is recording and taking down minutes. ICMI2020 used otter.ai to take minutes automatically. This is another way to keep a record of what happened during a session if in case a session is not recorded. This way, student volunteer can post the recorded Q&A in the respective Discord or Slack channel afterwards. Discord and Slack channels could be open as many times as the organizer wants to. If someone has a question later on they can still contact the author if necessary.
Remo, Spatial Chat, Mozilla Hubs, Gather Town, Spatial.io, hubbub are mainly used for social gatherings and informal chats. However, these still can be used to host an entire conference as some of these tools have screen sharing, video and audio conferencing capabilities inbuilt (e.g. Gather and Mozilla Hubs). The problem is these tools are new hence not all participants would welcome them. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to use these platforms for the entirety of the conference. However, in future (when Facebook + Oculus create the next social VR platform) I am sure these spaces will become much more intuitive for many users just like we adapted to social media and to share things we do in our lives with the whole world.
I am not going into further details of these tools. But before I conclude I would like to highlight some perspectives as an attendee, presenter and a student volunteer.
Conference Attendees perspective…
As an attendee, of course, having to learn multiple tools is not a very pleasant experience (at least that is what I heard from many). Every conference organizer had to send several emails with instructions, tutorial videos etc. which means lots of homework to be done before attending the conference. If you don’t do your homework, well there are helpdesk, but still, the attendee has to face various difficulties such as browser not supporting some software, not enough memory to install software, OS-related security issues and whatnot. So it is very important to have a set of dedicated technical support staff before and during the conference. Well, student volunteers would be happy to help with these.
Next point is, try different tools first and see for yourself (as organizers) which tool would be more intuitive for your use and provide a better experience to the user. Do not rush to pick the tool. Always appoint an online-chair or virtual-chair (you can name it as you want) with a set of student volunteers/organizing committee members. Try some tools (there is a free trial in every software) and some are free as well. For example, if you take Ryver. Firstly a user needs an account. Next, on a browser, Ryver doesn’t allow a user to open it in two different tabs. If someone, like me, who has tons of tabs and a couple of browsers open, I lost the track of Ryver tab totally. The only option for me was to install Ryver desktop client on my computer. This may not be an option for everyone (I am not against Ryver, it is a great tool and it has nice features such as task scheduling which I didn’t see in another tool). However, lesser the trouble better it is because some participant might not want to install completely new software for a single conference.
Let’s look at some other requirements. Since the conference is online many attendees would want to access presenter slide deck or videos. So make sure the platform you choose has video sharing and file-sharing capabilities. Otherwise, of course, you have to have cloud storage (e.g. Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive) where you can upload files and share links with participants. YouTube, Vimeo, GitHub, GitLab (for video and file sharing) are also options but as I mentioned earlier, lesser the number of tools used better it is.
From a presenter perspective…
As a presenter, I think (at least for me) virtual conferences gave me a positive experience (Well I am generally okay with public speaking though). I could prepare my video in a way that I clearly deliver my message. I avoided running out of time or missing presenting important points. It is a bit of work (to prepare a video) but you can try and give a clear picture of your work to the audience. Again, you could save all the question, feedback received which is another important thing. Again, I would like if I could concentrate on one platform while I am presenting and later, of course, answering on Discord or Slack.
Student Volunteer (SV) Experience…
Finally, as a student volunteer. Most importantly we (SVs) got to learn all these platforms and it is indeed handy to master a lot of virtual platforms these days. I myself experienced all the software that is listed in Figure 2 above and confident in helping someone with troubleshooting and setting up.
Further, SVs still get some perks such as free registration and some swags (I got a T-shirt that came all the way from Europe). I agree it is not a compensation to the experience of travelling though, but we cannot travel always even if you don’t have any restrictions due to various other reasons.
The best thing that I gained as a student volunteer is a network and the experience. You can meet from fellow PhD students to giants in the field. Well of course you get student volunteer perks like T-shirts and all the swags, free registration and a lot of fun meetings with other students from around the world. With virtual conferences, even though we miss the 'elevator pitch', no dinner or catch up at lunch, we still get the chance to send people we want to connect with a private message using all these tools. The chances are high that you could get in touch with them. You can drop them an email, or chat instantaneously. I think this is efficient and effective than sharing a physical business card which may or may not connect you with relevant people.
It would have been nice if there is a way to conduct the whole conference with a single point of entry. That means users can log into one software that has all the facilities combined (e.g. Features of Ryver, Zoom and Spatial Chat all in one software). Well, I understand this could be a bit heavy engineering task but I am sure such platforms will have immense benefit for virtual conferences.
Well, I was thinking what if conferences could provide VR Head Mount Displays (HMD) for participants (cost can be included in the registration pack) then the experience will be much nicer with platforms like spatial.io and Mozilla Hubs. If we put some thoughts in on how to manage cost and shipping, I don’t think this totally is a fancy (junk) idea. Since conference organizer doesn’t have to pay for expensive venues and don’t have to pay for travelling and hotel stay, if they can arrange some agreement with VR HMD manufacturers like Oculus, I believe they can try and provide a VR HMD for a lesser price than in the market.
With all these experiences and ideas in mind, looking forward to hybrid conferences in 2021…
If you like the article and the content, you can buy me a virtual coffee as everything else moves from reality towards virtual too 😊