Conferences have been a great way of information dissemination for almost all businesses and research domains. They are the place where people meet and greet once every few months/years and learn from each other. Recently, I am personally pained to see the number of conferences and events getting canceled due to the spread of COVID-19 at epidemic proportions.  Having been a core part of organizing conferences, I can empathize with the “devastating” feeling the organizers (and other stakeholders – attendees, sponsors, etc.,) will be going through seeing months of hard work going down the drain.
But it’s tough times like these that bring out the best in us and forces us to think outside the box. It’s not the “beginning of the end” for live conferences or events as I see some people making it out to be. It doesn’t have to be a “zero-sum game”. For instance, online learning had its “tipping point” during the SARS epidemic in 2013 in China.  During this time, a lot of students/parents started accepting online learning technology as one of the legitimate ways of learning given the physical access was restricted.
For some time now, there has been an exponential increase in physical conferences and attendees. Therefore, conferences have had their fair share of criticism too given the impact on the environment when millions of people travel during a year to attend conferences across different countries.
Prof Moshe Y Vardi estimates that a conference attendee contributes around 1.8 tons of CO2 on an average to the environment.  This is definitely not sustainable in the longer-term and there is push from all around to reduce conference travels, given that a lot of organizations are signing up for the carbon offset programs.
One of the viable options is to do conference “virtually”, and there has been a steady increase in “virtual conferences/events” where all the talks are live-streamed, and interactions happen through a chat interface. However, there has been no visible reduction in physical conferences & associated travel. Going forward I strongly believe that virtual events will demand the best consistent digital content. Those who can consistently captivate and engage with an audience will see success. Focusing on audiences and content that converts will matter more, and traditional “conference” vanity metrics will decline.
The million-dollar question (or maybe “billion” given the market size) is whether the COVID-19 outbreak can provide a “tipping point” for organizing conferences virtually while providing nearly similar opportunities for learning & interaction? Also, there needs to be a greater focus needed for “on-demand” content. It is practically impossible for anyone to attend a full conference with multiple tracks synchronously. Also, the number of people who are interested in a given conference is way more than the attendees at the conference. We measured this for a popular AI/ML conference and estimated that only 3-5% attend the conference wrt # of people who watch their videos.
Therefore, we need to think through for better system designs and interactions for “virtual conferences”. Please do comment on what you miss most when you attend a conference virtually as opposed to attending it in person.
PS: At VideoKen (https://videoken.com/), we are doing our bit by helping several key AI/Cloud/product conferences like NeurIPS, ICML, ICLR, ICCV, KubeCon, Nasscom Product Connect, etc., make their conference & event recordings discoverable and engaging (On-Demand) using VideoLake. You can try out some of these here. (quick tip: search for your favorite topic or talk).
Article written by Kuldeep