Last week I remotely attended IEEE International Conference on Requirements Engineering (RE 20) hosted in Zurich. This was a new and interesting experience because of the following reasons:
- Hybrid conference: This was a hybrid conference, as in, some attendees attended the conference at the local venue, while the remaining attendees remotely connected to the conference on an online platform called Discord. I was attending a hybrid conference for the first time, and was using Discord for the first time. Due to Covid-19 situation, the organizers had to take this decision of hosting a hybrid conference, and this was a new experience for them as well. This, however, didn’t dampen the quality of the conference. We had many lively discussions on various paper presentations and keynote speeches over Discord, using video conferencing and texting facilities.
- Different Timezones: Attendees and speakers connected to the conference from many different timezones across the world. The conference began at around 10 AM in Zurich. I connected to the conference at 1:30 PM from India. Through our conversations over Discord, I learned that some people remotely connected to the conference at 6 PM, while some connected at 2 AM, as per their respective local time. This is fascinating to me that morning people, afternoon people, evening people and late-night people are able to connect to each other at the same time to talk about something they’re passionate about in a professional setting.
- The virtual world as a parallel dimension: Remotely attending an event of a grand scale as RE20 made me realize that Discord was like a virtual world that provided a parallel dimension for interaction between attendees, speakers and organizers. For instance, during and after a paper presentation or a keynote speech, many attendees typed their questions and comments on Discord chat facility. This ensued a lot of healthy discussions among attendees and between an attendee and a speaker. Here anybody could discuss with anybody, and others could read their discussion. Multiple discussions went on in parallel without disturbing each other. One could easily move from one discussion to another without having to physically change place. None of this is possible in the physical world when we all get together at a venue. One set of people may be discussing something and, sitting few rows behind them, I would wonder what they’re discussing about with such enthusiasm. The virtual world does feel like The Matrix where certain rules of physical world do not apply, leading to less restrictions and greater possibilities.
- Virtual world as a log-book/time travel portal: In any conference, certain sessions run in parallel. This is where one is forced to choose one session and may miss out on the talks or speeches in other sessions. However, the way RE20 was organized on Discord, the textual conversations and discussions that happened during every session of the conference was saved on the online platform. This week I could browse through the discussions that happened in the sessions I couldn’t attend. Accessing and reading this log-book of ideas, observations and challenges felt like a time-travel experience such that I could still benefit from the discussions without being present there in real-time.
Overall attending a conference remotely was a new and interesting experience. Uncertain WiFi connectivity and time-difference was challenging at times. Despite the benefits of a parallel dimension and a log-book, I may not want to remotely attend every conference because a face-to-face interaction with other researchers and the overall exciting vibe of the crowd is definitely a better experience than sitting alone in your room and asking if I’m audible and visible. Last but not the least, I missed the goodies at the registration desk, and the tour of the city. Let us hope the new normal doesn’t remain the new normal for very long.