Designing online/virtual Conferences

Brief

I was elected Vice President of Conferences for ACM IMX, an international conference focussed on research into interactive media experiences in 2020. In 2021, I got to collaborate with Yvette Wohn as general chairs for IMX 2021 which was scheduled to be held in New York under a general theme – “Beyond Entertainment”: Seeking to represent the diversity in which Interactive Media is used in our lives. Very early on in the planning phase, Yvette and I made a clear decision to pivot towards making the conference a fully virtual event.

In 2020, in addition to acting as one of the Diversity Chairs, one of the Doctoral Consortium Chairs, one of the organisers for a workshop on ‘Toys and the TV: Serious Play’, one of the organisers of the Snap Creative Challenge ‘Reimagine the Future of Storytelling with Augmented Reality‘, I was also heavily involved in implementing a virtual venue on Mozilla Hubs in order to host poster and demo sessions. The experience of 2020 helped instill a keen awareness of the complexities of taking a conference into a fully virtual realm in 2021.

In collaboration with…

ACM IMX 2021 Organising committee and OhYay

Scope

From the beginning of the project, Yvette and I had a set of principles which we hoped would improve on an already on the achievements of past IMX (previously TVX) conferences.

At the heart of it, the remit was to organise a ‘space’ that brings together international researchers and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, ranging from human-computer interaction, multimedia engineering and design to media studies, media psychology and sociology. However, as general chairs, Yvette & I were keen to look at the conference in 2021 as an opportunity to:

  • Improve diversity of participation in IMX at all levels.
    • Organisers & Hosts
    • Presenters
    • Attendees
  • Remove as many barriers as possible for students and make it impactful for them.
    • Grants and Registration assistance
    • Mentorship & Doctoral Consortium
  • Make accessiblity a priority through the conference.
    • Proceedings
    • Platform (virtual venue)
  • Create an open & inclusive venue & organisation.
  • Make a fun and engaging conference.
    • Networking
    • Social activities

Conference Needs & Design Requirements

Expected number of attendees: ~125, majority based in Europe and North America.

The conference is traditionally held for three days around mid-June. The first day focuses on workshops which often run in parallel to each other. The remaining two days are dedicated to the main conference. The main conference is normally designed as a single track conference with two keynotes, industry talks, paper presentations interspersed with poster sessions, demonstrations and social activities.

As general chairs, Yvette & I made the decision to go virtual quite early on in the organisation process. This allowed us to not only recruit the right people but also make a head start on designing a venue fit for purpose.

Approach: People, Design & Implementation

Assembling the organising committee

Academic conferences like IMX relies on peers coming together to generously donate time and energy towards organising different aspects of the conference. In addition to inviting specific colleagues across academia and industry who we thought would serve a specific function on the organising committee well, we also issued an open invitation to join us on social media platforms and mailing lists. Each track of the conference was managed by 2-3 chairs. In addition to the track chairs, we also recruited virtual chairs (Fiona & Jonathan), an accessiblity chair (Mike), a social chair (Doug), publicity chairs (Tara & Zhicong), proceedings chairs (Jie & Tobias) and diversity & inclusion chairs (Wei, Kate & Aisling). The organising committee was made up of 33 colleagues from a diverse set of backgrounds with varying level of expertise and research interests.

Design Principles

We were keen to host the conference in an all-in-one virtual/online space that was easy to access with minimal machine requirements and low bandwidth requirement in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible. We wanted to be able to make as accessible a conference as possible from website design to the provision of American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and subtitled/captioned content. We also wanted to work on a platform that would give us customisable interactive features to build into an engaging venue.

At the very least, within the scope of IMX, the platform had to allow attendees to see and hear a live (or pre-recorded) presentation, participate workshops in groups, have one-to-one conversations, network and participate in Q&A sessions with presenters and panels. Being able to record and archive the content in the conference was a bonus.

Choosing the platform

There are many platforms available for conference hosting for use individually or in combination – Zoom, Discord, Gather.town, Mozilla Hubs, Virbela, Hopin, Sli.do, Hubbub and many others. These platforms all come with their own set of benefits and limitations. The ACM maintains a guide for best practice which was a useful start in our design process.

However, we didn’t want to merely enable a conference, we wanted to create as best a conference venue as we could. After considerable desk research and conversations with service providers in collaboration with the virtual chairs, I reached out to OhYay. The team at OhYay were responsive, capable and, most importantly, they recognised the need to create an inclusive and accessible conference space. The platform allowed us to create a real-time, interactive conference venue experience which could be accessed through web browsers (Chrome/Firefox) without the need for special equipment. Finally, almost on a sidenote, the platform and associated support from the team was free to use.

In collaboration with the virtual chairs, I implemented a basic space to conduct some guerilla testing with colleagues at BBC R&D and the rest of the organising committee who were invited to explore the space and have conversations in the different ‘rooms’ available to them. The organisers lurked in the rooms to observe the behaviour of the ‘testers’ and evaluate the suitablity of the platform. We concluded that the platform could handle the numbers we needed to host at IMX and that it gave us enough flexiblity in function to create a trully inclusive and engaging conference. As a result, OhYay was chosen as the platform of choice.

The ACM IMX 2021 Experience

Program planned at IMX 2021
A story of screenshots at IMX 2021

Aesthetic: In addition to ensuring the platform was suited to host 150-200 people in conference activities, we spent quite a bit of time designing the look, feel and brand of the venue on OhYay. The venue was designed to have the look and feel of a 2.5D space. For instance, one of the virtual chairs (Fiona) spent some time sourcing images which were then photoshopped with images of furniture (and added shadows) placed in the image to give it depth. The background images themselves were chosen to complement IMX branding.

Navigation metaphor: The venue had an aesthetic that emulated a modern skyscraper in the middle of New York city with ‘corridors’ connecting ‘rooms’ and ‘lifts’ connecting ‘floors’. There were sofas, chairs and stools to ‘sit’ on and ‘photobooths’ to take selfies in. The navigation metaphor was extended through the space to include nooks, hangout spaces and a roof top pool area. The goal was to create an online venue which was navigable in a spatial manner through ‘corridors’ and ‘doors’. The ‘Main Hall’ was where all keynotes, paper presentations, industry talks and panels took place. The ‘Showcase’ area was where poster presentations and demostrations took place. The ‘Workshops’ were special areas in which a small subset of attendees came together to discuss mutually interesting topics as part of a workshop. The ‘Doctoral Consortium’ space was where we hosted students and mentors in a special workshop designed to give doctoral candidates some facetime with experts from around the globe. The lobbies (West/East Lobby) were interconnecting corridors in which attendees could ‘bump’ into each other and chat. The ‘Social Spaces’ were specially designed rooms in which we host fun activities. In addition to these conference related activities, we also had three special areas for ‘tech support’, ’emotional support (cares room)’ and ‘rehearsal activities (green room)’. Finally, we limited the number of ‘doors’ in/out of the ‘rooms’ to three, as can be seen in the map below, for two reasons. Firstly, we wanted to minimise clutter on the interface. Even though the platform is built on top of web technologies and accessed through a web browser, we didn’t want attendees to feel like they were simply navigating through a bunch of web pages (despite the reality of doing just that). Secondly, we wanted minimise confusion for users w.r.t deciding where to go next.

Map and Program guide

Being together: Attending conferences online can feel solitary and so we spent a while implementing little things to indicate the ‘presence’ of others viewing the same content as you. We provided a ‘map’ for attendees to easily visualise the layout of the space in addition to an embedded program schedule. On the map, users could also see how many people were occupying a particular room at any one time on the map and they could see which part of the program was ‘live’. Each ‘live’ event happened in a specific ‘room’ in the space and as can be seen in the image above, the live rooms hosted the most number of attendees. Once attendees entered a room, there were different ways in which the presence of others were indicated as shown in the images below – from video thumbnails of others in the room to a numeric indication of the number of people in the audience. In the main hall, the main focus was mostly on the presentation and the speakers with the audience muted to avoid disturbances. The number of people in the audiences were indicated at the bottom of the screen in addition to audience ‘avatars’ randomly presented on a dynamic carousel. In rooms where the focus was on discussing topics or ‘bumping’ into each other, suitably sized video spots were placed in the room.

Modes of Communication:

In addition to the synchronous audio-visual communication channel, there were message boxes enabled to enable asynchronous communications through text. Messages were used to submit questions to the yoga instructor in order to leave the session uninterrupted. Messages were used to communicate song requests in the middle of a lip sync battle. Messages were also left in hangouts to trigger delight in future visitors or leave words of encouragement in poster rooms if the presenter was away.

In order to encourage attendees to present their questions to presenters vocally (preferrably on camera) during scheduled Q&A sessions, we decided to not include a message box in the main hall. However, due to overwhelming popular demand, we added a message box to the main hall on the first day of conference.

Access services & support:

I was keen to make the conference as accessible as possible with the help of the accessiblity chair and the OhYay team. With the help of ACM IMX 2021 authors and the proceedings chairs, we were able to ensure the proceedings were made accessible.

Paper and industry presenters were asked to provide a captioned video of their talk. This was played during the scheduled time of their presentation. The Q&A part of each presentation was held live. We also ensured all video recordings of paper presentations & industry talks were subtitled/captions and accessible from the program link in case attendees missed the live playback during the scheduled slot in the program. Attendees could request captions while viewing the video playback.

Keynotes and Panels were live talks so we employed the help of a sign language interpreter (American Sign Language – ASL) and a captioner. Attendees could request either service using the appropriate buttons on the lower right hand side of the main hall room.

In accordance with SIGCHI principles, I was keen to implement a CARES room where attendees could ask for support from our diversity and inclusion chair (Kate) if they encountered any form of harrasment. Thankfully, this function was not called upon.

Main Hall:

Just like you might re-arrange the furniture on a stage in a physical conference, the main hall could be reconfigured dynamically to suit a two moderator setting, a moderator+presenter presenting arrangement, a keynote presenting version, and a panel setting. For all these arrangements, there was a setting in which audiences were put on mute when the presentations were happening and a setting in which audiences could click to come on ‘stage’ to ask questions audio-visually.

In addition to requesting access services, attendees could also use the emojis to express appreciation for the speakers.

Showcase Rooms:

Posters, work-in-progress pieces of works and demos were categoried within themes allowing attendees to browse them in accordance to their interests. Once an attendee chose a specific presentation within the theme, they were directed into a ringed set of rooms. In each poster/demo room, there were buttons (on the top right corner) to take them to the previous and next presentation in the ringed set or back to the start of the showcase to select a different theme. Within the room itself, there was a dedicated video spot for the author/presenters. If it wasn’t occupied, a sign proclaimed that the presenter was away. There were video spots for attendees below the presenter spot and if an attendee/presenter wanted to invite someone else in the conference, they could do so. In this way, small group discussions were made possible.

The attendee/presenter could also leave messages in the room chat box. This was especially useful when attendees wanted to share URIs to other pieces of work or an online demo/resource.

Discussion Rooms:

May discussion rooms were implemented to host themed workshops, impromptu network sessions with students and experts, and doctoral activities. We worked with workshop organisers nearer the conference date to implement a mix of functions the organisers thought would better suit their workshop – the number of video spots, the presence of a message box, the ablity to give presentations etc.

Restricted Spaces & Controls:

OhYay allows for different level of administrative control. The virtual chairs, like myself, had full control and were able to edit the look, feel and experience for all. However, running a conference is a huge undertaking and so we recruited student volunteers from around the globe to help host IMX 2021. Student volunteers were given a visual badge, designed specially for IMX 2021 by Jie – one of the work in progress chairs, so that attendees knew who to ask for help. A lot of our student volunteers also presented their work in the conference.

Yvette and I grilling one of our student volunteers (Lingyuan) who was also the Student Volunteer chair.

The student volunteers and workshop organisers were given access to special buttons which could be used to control the experience the attendees had in pre-determined ways. These buttons were only viewable by the ‘hosts’ of the conference. They allowed the hosts to play the right pre-recorded paper presentation in accordance to the agreed scheduled for instance. In some case, certain video spots could only be accessed by student volunteers – such as the position of the receptionist. The green room, which was essentially a copy of the main hall, could only be accessed by presenters and student volunteers for rehearsal and tech testing purposes. The doctoral consortium could only be accessed by the doctoral candidate authors and their mentors. In this way, we were able to guide the conference experience dynamically.

Discovery, Delight & Swag:

Working with the social chair and the virtual chairs, we were able to implement social spaces for attendees to network and have fun. This included persuading my general co-chair to walk around NYC and take videos of tourist things which were featued in a cinema in addition to designing the swag in the IMX 2021 store.

Archive & Legacy:

I was keen to archive as much of IMX 2021 in some way beyond the conference. Of course the proceedings are a huge part of the conference’s legacy. Additionally, all keynotes and panels were recorded and will be uploaded to the ACM IMX channel in due course. The conference space itelf has been left open on the OhYay platform as a showcase of what’s possible. Please visit and also read a report on Lingyuan’s social media report for SIGMM.

PS:

Organising, implementing and hosting a virtual conference takes a lot of work and would not be possible without the hard work of a lot of volunteers. The work covered in this post only tackles the design and implementation of the venue. A lot of consideration went into thinking about how we could celebrate diversity. Together with the virtual chairs, we made sure we have orienting and familisation sessions for speakers, workshop organiser and attendees so that onboarding on the day of the conference would go as seamlessly as possible. We thought about injecting diversity of participation into all levels of the conference including the makeup of the organising committee from the very beginning of the project. We worked with the accessiblity adjunct chairs on the SIGCHI executive committee to ensure we tested the accessiblity of the platform.

In the end, we hosted 170 registered attendees with 45-50 people synchronously taking part in the conference activities at any one time. Working with the diversity & inclusion chairs, we were able to find funding for all of the near 50 students who participated in the conference in addition to affording compensation for both our keynotes and panellists.

It has been a very rewarding experience on multiple levels and judging from the feedback given by attendees in the conference, it made an impact. Maybe it is not as fun as catching a football signed by the South Korean national team (back in 2018) but it can get pretty close! Getting a certificate in recognition of some of the hard work is just the icing on the virtual cake.