Oakland 2020: Thoughts on a Virtual Conference by a Michigan EECS Graduate Student

IEEE Security and Privacy 2020 was as good as I could have hoped for as a rising second-year graduate student in embedded security research. While nothing will beat the perks of in-person conferences, this was still a beneficial learning experience. Like all things that have moved online as a result of the pandemic, there were pros and cons.

The biggest challenge for me was understanding presenters with the lack of facial expressions and hand gestures. I never realized how much they contribute to conversation, but I noticed I felt lost more than usual during presentations. Some presenters put a small video overlay on the slides of themselves speaking, which helped tremendously.

Another aspect of the virtual conference that created a challenge: meeting new people. Personally, I think the conference handled this beautifully. Everyday a slack bot would pair up two people who did not know each other and place them in a private slack channel. Participants could submit a list of people they did not want to be paired with as to ensure each pair would be strangers. As imagined, this was more awkward than the organic introductions and conversations that happen at random at these types of gatherings, but I found this to be an inventive and effective solution.

One thing I would like to see improved is the Q&A sessions. After each paper presentation session, a zoom link would automatically pop up taking attendees to the Q&A session. There were a couple issues arising with this process, the first being how short the Q&A sessions were. One perk of being online is that multiple things can happen in parallel, so having such a short Q&A session made me wonder how to improve the opportunity. The second being the throughput of the Q&A sessions due to attendees being muted. While I understand the reasoning behind the forced mute, it took a significant amount of time for an attendee to type the question, the presenter to read the question, comprehend the question, and then provide an answer. Back and forth communication for clarification or expansion was simply impossible, especially because of how short the time limit was.  Some of this would have been solved if attendees were required to use the “raise your hand” feature of zoom and then be unmuted to ask their question. Unfortunately, I’m sure different issues would also arise with this alternative approach.

With all of that being said, having an online conference had some amazing benefits! The greatest benefit: accessibility to many people. The affordable cost and easy access allowed more people to attend the conference. Some undergraduate research assistants in my lab were able to attend and would have never been able to afford the travel and registration costs if it were held in person.  I would love to see conferences and other similar events be offered both in person and online in the future. I believe IEEE Security and Privacy has created a solid foundation to do so.  (My graduate advisor Kevin Fu tells me that in ancient history in the 1990s, some security conferences live-cast Q&A on the Mbone using multicast. It was sick.)

Overall, the conference went very smoothly for me. I would not have guessed this was the first time this massive conference was held online. To me, that says everything. I am so grateful to the people who worked behind the scenes and took the time and ensured the conference would be a great experience and go on with minimal hiccups. They did a fantastic job! I am so glad I chose to register and I thoroughly enjoyed attending IEEE Security and Privacy 2020 online.

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