Virtual Conferences

August 22, 2020

With physical meetings being impossible since March in many parts of the world, events such as conferences, meetups or sprints have been virtualized. While this initially was done rather ad-hoc with just a bunch of people crammed into a poorly working video call, things have improved considerably by now. Here’s some thoughts after having attended quite a few virtual events in the past months.

Technical Aspects

Probably the most obvious part of the evolution of virtual events is the clearly visible (and audible) quality improvements. A very welcome change especially for the larger events where you spent all day listening to people, and that can be quite exhausting if we don’t properly understand what’s being said and have to manually adjust audio levels for each speaker.

The increased quality requirements also impacted my own setup, moving from built-in webcam and simple headset to full HD external camera, lapel microphone, proper lighting and OBS for scene composition, cleaning the audio feed and recording, with a virtual V4L webcam and a virtual PulseAudio microphone feeding this into the corresponding conference software. A bit too complex and fragile for my taste, but producing a much better result.

Remote conference participation setup.
My setup for participating in virtual conferences.

Essentially the mindset changed a bit from “video call” to “interactive live broadcast”. That’s also why for example the gaming live streaming community is a good source for inspiration on equipment and tools.

Social Aspects

The most challenging parts for virtual events is finding a way to facilitate enough social interaction, something that is usually the most important part of physical meetings.

That’s where a shift too much towards a TV broadcast like setup can be counter-productive. Pre-recorded talks do significantly reduce the technical risk, but to the very least the following Q&A part of a presentation should be done live with the speaker present.

What also seems to help is having dedicated chat rooms alongside the channels intended for communication about a specific talk, and keeping those active and alive. That’s the closest I have seen to the “hallway track” so far.

Another thing that is usually very valuable at physical events are discussions over lunch/dinner with whatever smaller group of people you happen to end up there. I haven’t seen a good replacement for this yet, maybe something that can be tried with smaller (randomized?) breakout rooms for virtualized lunch/dinner breaks?

Outreach Aspects

The biggest gain provided by virtual events is the far far lower threshold for attending. No travel, much lower cost (if any), often not even a registration, you can just drop in and see if the event is interesting to you and you feel comfortable there before getting more involved.

I noticed this was even the case for myself, and I’m not exactly facing a particular high threshold there, having attended many events during the past 15+ years, usually belonging to the majority demographic, having a passport that lets me travel easily to most parts of the world and having access to multiple travel expense funding sources. So I can only imagine this to be making a much larger difference for people not checking all those boxes.

Since June I have tried to attend any conference or meetup I became aware of that is vaguely related to KDE Itinerary, not all of which I would have attended physically probably. Every single one however turned out to have been very much worth it, yielding concrete results for KDE Itinerary. If you follow the regular development summaries you will already have spotted a few of those, and there’s more to come.

Once physical meetings become possible again I therefore think it will be crucial we find a way to retain the ability for remote participation. We had previously already done some experiments with that, with this year’s learnings we should be able to considerably improve on that though.

Akademy

One of the upcoming virtual events I’m obviously looking forward to particularly is KDE Akademy. I’ll be talking about how we can use Wikidata and OpenStreetMap to make our applications smarter, September 6th, and I’ll of course be around for the entire week-long event as well, a global pandemic wont stop that tradition :)