What Does it Take to Put on a Virtual Conference?

A Message from ACM SIGGRAPH President Jessica Hodgins

Dear ACM SIGGRAPH community,

As the organizers who scrambled to put on the first conferences that went virtual this spring have emphatically said, a virtual conference is just as big an undertaking as an in-person conference. Even though our SIGGRAPH leadership team has decades of experience planning in-person conferences, we start the process more than 18 months in advance with volunteer committee meetings, the building of a graphic identity, and by signing contracts with vendors who provide administration, marketing, exhibit floor sales, AV, decoration, and food.

So, when our convention center in D.C. was designated a future alternate care site on 30 April, we immediately began looking for a platform that could support a conference with the diversity of programming found each year at SIGGRAPH. The experience of SIGGRAPH is far more than just a set of presentations and includes hundreds of hours of content in a wide variety of different formats, and putting on a virtual conference is not merely setting up a set of prerecorded talks with moderated Q&A sessions.

As we work to figure out what the first virtual SIGGRAPH will look like and how to best present the amazing content that has been accepted to SIGGRAPH 2020, we are also treating this as an opportunity for positive change that only comes around once every few generations. With the virtual SIGGRAPH 2020, we can help define what the conferences of the future should look like. This year, we’ll experiment a bit and, over time, be able to refine with new content and experiences as we learn what works and share what we have learned. Some in-person experiences, like bumping into your best friend from grad school or physically engaging with Emerging Technologies demos that rely on haptics, won’t be fully realizable digitally. But we expect that some things will be even better, with more attention devoted to content with fewer parallel sessions and new forms of online networking, interaction, and mentoring. 

As we began this process, the SIGGRAPH Conference Advisory Group and the ACM SIGGRAPH Executive Committee quickly decided we did not want to just broadcast a set of prerecorded material, and instead to work toward including the interactions that keep us coming back to SIGGRAPH year after year. We surveyed our contributors, members, and SIGGRAPH 2019 participants to begin building a picture of what a virtual SIGGRAPH should look like. We received over a 1,000 responses to the survey, and many of you gave us voluminous, incredibly useful, and heartwarming comments.

We have demoed eight platforms, all of which go well beyond the basic functionality of webinars or teleconferencing, and have focused in on a few that we are currently vetting more closely. We hope to sign a contract soon, and will likely be shifting the conference timing slightly to mid- or late-August. The extra time will allow us to build out the platform properly. You can expect, too, that the conference will span a slightly longer period of time to compensate for everyone in our community’s additional daily responsibilities as we continue to work from home. We will also have some of the material available in advance to better accommodate time zones globally. We plan to have a virtual Exhibition that will allow you to visit many of the familiar faces you’ve come to expect in-person alongside a number of new companies.

Many details are yet to be hammered out, of course, so while you wait for more to be announced, I thought you might enjoy watching my favorite movie of the year — the SIGGRAPH 2020 Technical Papers trailer:

Jessica Hodgins

This letter was originally posted to the ACM SIGGRAPH President’s Corner on SIGGRAPH.org.

2 Responses

  1. Gerrit Wessendorf

    Thanks for all the hard work in making this conference work despite all the challenging circumstances. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to turn such a flagship of a conference around in just a few weeks/months.
    Do you know how you are going to handle registrations and the different registration tiers this time? I registered for the Full Conference Platinum with Full Conference USB and a number of merchandise – will this still apply to the virtual SIGGRAPH2020, or transfer over to 2021 where it’s not applicable? Or will SIGGRAPH2020 be free like other conferences that changed to a virtual format?
    Thank you again, and best regards,

    • SIGGRAPH Conferences

      Hi Gerrit – Thank you for this note. It is definitely not an easy task! The logistics of registration for the virtual conference are still being finalized. Each of our current registrants will be the first to know of these changes in order to make adjustments to your existing packages. Once we confirm a platform, we will contact all individuals who had registered for the in-person conference and advise them of the options for the virtual conference. From there, you will be able to determine your choice and we will proceed from there, i.e., apply it to a virtual registration option and/or issue a partial or full refund. If you’d like to speak with our team directly, please email registration-s2020@siggraph.org.

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