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The Future of Conference

Teng Li's picture

Attending conferences is one of the essential professional activities for scientific researchers. Conferences take various forms, such as community-wide meetings (e.g., MRS meetings, ASME congress, APS meetings), and topic-focused meetings/workshops (e.g., Plasticity07, Gordon Research Conferences(GRC)).  While people have different preferences on the types of conference to attend (e.g., see a recent iMech poll initiated by Biswajit Banerjee ), here are some common positive driving forces to motivate one to attend a conference:

  •     Present his/her own latest research progress to interested audience;
  •     Learn about others' latest research progress in the fields of his/her interest, with the hope to be inspired and stimulated in further research;
  •     Build up (for junior researchers) and further strengthen (for established researchers) your own professional reputation over the years by presenting at conferences (and also by organizing conferences, symposiums, and sessions);
  •     For researchers in academia, fulfill the scholarly activity requirement in your annual APT review;
  •     Network with his/her colleagues in the field;
  •     Tour around the neighbor area of the conference cite, which is quite often well selected for this reason.

On the other hand, there are also common negative driving forces to prevent one from attending a conference:

  •   Time constraint.  Typical conferences last 3~5 days. Traveling can also be time-consuming. Such a chunk block of time often requires overriding one's routine commitments (e.g., teaching for academic researchers);
  •   Budget constraint.  The average cost for attending a domestic conference nowadays ranges from $1,000 to $2,000, without counting the indirect cost (e.g.,50% in my institution).  Attending international conferences costs even more.

The balance between the above two sets of driving forces determines the final decision of "Going" or "Not going" to a conference.  In practice, it's not rare that one travels 6+ hours and pays $1000+ for attending a conference for just one day to present a paper, and then travels another 6+ hours back due to the constraints of other commitments.  Budget-wise and time-wise, the traditional model of conference is not optimized, essentially due to the requirement of one's physical presence at a conference.  Such shortcomings of the traditional conference model have been suffered not only by the scientific community, but also by the business world, which is typically more budget sensitive.

Efforts to seek alternative conference solutions exist for decades, largely driven by the business world.  Now teleconference is being widely used to reduce logistic cost and save travel time.  The use of live video further improves the effectiveness of teleconference, by allowing "face-to-face" interaction and multimedia contents sharing.  The video conference fits well the conference needs of scientific researchers, but requires expensive facilities which are not readily available to many of us. For that reason, video teleconference has not been regularly used by scientific community.

Then came the Internet. Owing to the ever-increasing power of web services, the past decade has seen the substantial, if not radical, change in the way people communicate with each other.  We email, chat, and "meet" online every day, at an already low and ever-decreasing price. Currently, tens of VoIP services allow video conferencing and data sharing, for free or at a small charge.  A decent webcam costs less than fifty bucks (thanks to many of us hard working in the chip industry).  The  Internet-base conference solutions become a natural choice for the future.  Commercial web conferencing products are already available from software giants such as Microsoft and Acrobat (see here for a survey).  But again, the high cost of such commercial products has limited their use mainly in the business world so far.  (There exist some free web conferencing products, but with limited capacity compared to their expensive counterparts. I'll write my experience with one of them in a separate post.)

Above said, my initial motivation to write this post becomes obvious.  A natural question, what is the future of conference?  An ideal solution should overcome both time and budget constraints and fulfill all the functions of traditional conferences (e.g., those positive driving forces aforementioned), at low cost.

What about a virtual web-based conference solution?  No doubt can it overcome the negative driving forces.  Imagine this. Without rushing back and forth, you can attend multiple virtual conferences and present your talks in your office or at the beach during vacation (if you want to), and then teach your class or go canoeing, in the same day.  No more agonizing "should I go?" and "which should I go?".  No conference site rental cost and the related decrease in logistic cost will finally lead to a substantial drop in the conference registration price.  If well organized, attended and recognized, such virtual conferences will be able to offer the first four positive driving forces out of the six above.  Networking function, however, may only be achieved to some extent, but hardly comparable to in-person conversations.  Furthermore, there will be no conference site to visit.

A more realistic envision is then the co-existing virtual and traditional conferences as a near future solution.  For example, let community-wide meetings run in the form of virtual conferences, in which we present ideas and stay current with the frontier of the field.  Meanwhile in each year, people of common interest in certain focus topics get together in one or two GRC-type traditional conferences, for networking as well as for vacation.  The size and format of GRCs are perfect for networking, but the locations and accommodations of GRCs are often less attractive for vacation (Registration, lodging plus meals for $~700, what else do we ask for?)   With the savings (both money and time) from not attending too many traditional conferences, more people should be willing and be able to spend a week or two every year to network with their colleagues at a site like Hawaii or Sydney.

So far (to my best knowledge), softwares or web-services that can accommodate multiple symposiums/sessions and thousands of attendants, and enable real time presentation with interactive Q/A are not available yet, or at least not at an affordable price, to the scientific community.  A virtual conference solution customized to the needs of scientific community will be of great demand and also huge market potential.  Take MRS meetings as an example. Typical number of attendants of a MRS meeting is ~3000.  Assuming the average expense of each attendant of $1000, it adds up to $3M.  Assuming on average each MRS attendant goes to three such conferences per year, then it adds up to $9M.  This only estimates one scientific community.  Given those many other scientific communities as active as MRS, you do the math.

While we envision the future of conference which calls for the endeavors from both scientific community and software developers, it will be helpful to initiate some explorations toward this direction now. Through such explorations, at least we will know better the desired features of the future virtual conference platform.  So I'm just wondering: With the available web conference services, can we experiment a small scale virtual conference within the iMechanica community (e.g., iMech vConf)?  We have already been presenting and discussing mechanics research and education in iMechanica.  Our monthly journal club themes can naturally serve as session topics and so can our discussion leaders serve as session chairs.  I hope this idea resonates with some of you.

Your comments are cordially welcome. Any recommendations and sharing of experience on web conferencing services are especially appreciated.



What a nice idea! I cannot help following up with you.

Except the budget constraint of video conference for scientific community, the location and schedule constraints are also a problem. We have to go to some certain auditorium without conflict with another class or conference, since such a well equipped teleconference room is quite popular. For example, last semester, John and Zhigang taught the fracture mechanics to both Harvard and Univ of Nebraska via the technology you mentioned above.  Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) didn’t have such equipments, so we used the facility in Dept. of biology.  We felt the convenience as well as the limitation. In addition, due to the low resolution image sent via internet, students in Nebraska could only read the powerpoint, but hard to read clearly what Zhigang wrote on the blackboard. Maybe for a teleconference as you mentioned, this is good enough, esp. the presentation is always given by ppt.

As you said, if we can attend a conference purely via internet on our own computer, that will be wonderful. A very good example is that ABAQUS gives the free seminars on the web, called webinar. I can attend such a webinar just on my own computer, either in office or at home, only if I am online and install a free small software “webex”. I can listen and read. And there is Q&A session. If I have a schedule conflict and miss it, I can ask for replay later.

I think in the very near future, webex or other likewise software will add another feature that allow attendees to see the facial expression of presenters.

What a wonderful future!

Teng Li's picture

WebEx is one of the mainstream commercial web conferencing products (see the survey link in my post).  I don't have experience with WebEx, but I've heard nice reviews from others WebEx users.  

Zhen, are ABAQUS Webinars one-way or two-way? For example, can you ask questions during the webinar?  Thanks.


It is a two-way interaction. You can ask question via microphone and also you can type your question and send it to organisor. Asking questions during webinar or after webinar depends on how to organize it. It is the same as we have a seminar in classroom, except that we cannot see each other during webinar.

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Teng, I can only give my personal preference. Your post reminds me of the masterccard ad on tv....we can use all the technology that money can buy to avoid travelling (and thus enjoying some of the advantages that you mentioned) however, personal face-to-face interaction is priceless. I believe that conferences through web (at least for my generation and older) are likely to be a convenient substitute occasionally rather than the norm.


The problem of cost and, for some of us, time is a great disincentive for physically going to conferences.  I feel that many conferences (though not all) are a waste of research money and, in the final reckoning, of taxpayer money.  Consider a large conference in Los Angeles (or any other major city) of 2000 people, each of whom have to spend an estimated $2000-$3000 for travel/hotels/registration/per diem.  That's almost 5 million dollars!  Multiply that with 5 and you have $25 million essentially being spent mostly on face-to-face networking! Would this money be better spent in actual research?  There is an interesting discussion on these lines at

Clearly there is a need for remote conferencing.  I would urge Pradeep and the organizers of the 2007 SES conference in Texas to pave the way and record some of the talks for posterity. Perhaps iMechanica or Youtube can be used to store and stream these videos on demand.


Teng Li's picture

Personal face-to-face interaction is something that web conferencing can not replace.  Just like we send emails, call over the phone and chat online to keep in contact, but what we enjoy the most is still the actual social gatherings.  We need both for an enjoyable life.  Technology should be used to improve the quality of our life, by enabling new experiences not available otherwise, and by saving time for us to enjoy those priceless moments.  In this sense there is no exception for web conferencing.

While in the post I focused on the time- and cost-saving benefit of web conferencing, here is another benefit I'd like to elaborate. The broader impact of web conferencing in long term.  By eliminating the need to be present at a conference, web conferencing breaks the geographic boundaries among scientific community in the world.  Researchers at every corner of the world can exchange their latest research more timely, frequently and vividly.  I've experienced several times in international conferences here in US, when I rushed to a meeting room for an interested presentation, only disappointed by the session chair's announcement of the unfortunate absence of the speaker due to visa difficulty.  I guess many share my observation.  There're also many other negative driving forces preventing us from attending conferences although we're willing to.  Wouldn't it be great if web conferencing enables the "presence" of those brilliant minds in the world who are unlikely to attend a traditional conference at a specific location?

Also, by reducing the cost of attending a conference, web conferencing allows more students, especially international students, to participate this essential professional activity.  iMechanica is a perfect example.  A large portion of iMech users is the students from all over the world.  They download lecture notes, watch mechanics related videos, join discussions and lead jClub themes.  I assume at least some of them will also enjoy attending an iMech virtual conference.

BTW, I like Pradeep's mastercard ad analogy.  It serves well as a candidate senario for the next mastercard ad.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Teng:

Brilliant post!  Pros and cons of offline conferences are all well said.  I also agree with your prediction that offline and online conferences will co-exist, possibly forever. 

Of course, they will also co-evolve. The current configuration is not optimal.  By introducing the Internet as a new variable, we can substantially reduce the constraint.  Let all configurations compete, and let an optimal configuration emerge. The new optimal configuration will surely combine offline and online solutions.

To translate your post to action, we can start small.  We can begin with technologies that are readily available.  Instead of starting with a whole conference, we can start with individual talks.  Do you and others know what is the minimum effort that we need to start something useful? 

For example, here is a talk by Fred Wilson on new business models of content distribution.  By watching the video and the ppt simultaneously, I find that the effect is just as good as listening to him in the seminar room.

Are we ready to produce something like his talk? 

Teng Li's picture


I'll address your two questions in inverse order. 


Thanks for pointing out the talk by Fred Wilson. I enjoyed very much that video some time ago. I also agree with you on the effectiveness of the video+slides mode.

The video/sound quality of Wilson's talk is terrific, most likely done by the pros. But if one is ok with the quality of video chatting via Skype, then I think we are ready to conduct the presentation in a similar mode.  I've been exploring the available softwares for a while and I did find a free one, called vRoom . It's a free version of a commercial product, with all the powerful functions but just with limited user number. So it's just ok for me to try with my students.  It's based on Java, so no software is installed, just a pop-up window.  This will be crucially great because the tech barrier is extremely lowered.   It allows video sharing, real-time presentation, application sharing...  I really like it so far.  So I highly recommend you and anyone interested to give a try.


Yes, we should start small. This is exactly what I've been thinking.  For example, we can just run a small demo session with 2-3 talks. This is readily doable with vRoom.  If anyone is interested, I'll be happy to initiate this effort.  Then we can start accumulating experience on web conferencing at small scale.  Upgrading to larger scales will be the matter of budget and community readiness.  Softwares like vRoom can easily handle tens even hundreds of people.

Is anybody in now? 

Teng Li's picture

With permission, I post the following email message I received from Cece Salomon-Lee at ON24, Inc. 



I came across your
posting (
I realize that you're considering using a free, web conferencing solution for a
small meeting but wanted to introduce you to my company - ON24, a webcasting


We have experience
working with companies to hold virtual meetings with hundreds and thousands of
attendees. I thought you would be interested in our online FAQs
regarding web conferencing and webcasting (
would also check out TheWebinarBlog ( - the
author looks into several solutions and explores the webinar


There are also
some points to consider when you go from a small, collaborative meeting (0-50
people) to a large scale meeting with multiple topics presented in a typical
conference. Based on the online discussion, I believe part of your consideration
would include:


1) Do you want to
record the events for later playback?

2) How many
simultaneous, live viewers do you anticipate for each

3) Will you have
audio with slides or require video? If the latter, than what quality are you

4) We just
finished a project where the company held the live, face-to-face sessions, but
also recorded everything for those who were unable to attend live. This enabled
them to charge two prices: one for live + archive, and one for only virtual
attendance. Are you considering the same?

5) Be aware that
some software providers say they can scale quickly, but be wary of how they
will handle the streams over their technology backend. It can lead to quality


These are just a
few questions that came to mind. If this is something that you want to explore,
I can point you to the right person within my company to discuss. Please let me


Good luck with
your event.



Cece Salomon-Lee

Communications Manager


Market Street, 6th Floor

Francisco, CA 94103


p.s. Anyone interested in further contact with ON24, I'll be happy to share Cece's contact info. 


MichelleLOyen's picture

Although I like this idea, it's hard for me to see how to make it work.  The idea hinges on live interaction in real time, else we are just talking about a web 2.0 forum for stashing canned videos of talks from hours ago.  While there may be some use in having a live and ongoing comments thread after the video talks, I don't think this can replace interactions in person for one reason which never would have occurred to me before I "hopped across the pond": we have a time-zone problem.  We want to get people in Asia, Europe and the Americas online at the same time?  Impossible, or possible in only very limited time-frames for short times.  Might work for a seminar but not an actual conference with back-to-back-to-back talks.   While jet lag can be painful, trying to keep up with colleagues in an increasingly global research field is actually facilitated by "live" conferences where we are all captive in the same time zone and geographical vicinity.  I am lucky in that Europe is sort of middle ground (7 hours difference from Singapore, 5 from the US east coast and 8 from the US west coast) but even then I find it difficult to schedule things like Skype calls with research colleagues in divergent time-zones.  Unfortunately the travel cost burden is also larger for trans-oceanic travel than for that just within the US (where the time zone offset is not more than 3 hours total in the mainland)

The time zone problem is trivial compared to the hurdles citizens of non western countries have to face to get to a conference in a country other than the one they reside in.   For a day trip to Sweden I have had to provide extensive documentation and spend more than 250 dollars just to get a visa.   For my trip to the ICF conference in Italy I had to provide almost a hundred pages of documentation for a 5 day trip.   It can be even worse if you want a US visa.   

I have had to waste many days running aroung and getting the documentation for visas.  I no longer think that's worth my time and will not apply for a European visa again unless someone else does all the work for me.

Also, if you work in a country like India, the $3000+ that it costs for a foreign trip is close to half of what you earn in a year in academia.  

If you want to include the whole world in "international" conferences then we have the technology to do it.   My suggestion is that instead of keeping the proceedings closed, make them open.   People can pay a premium for real time interaction if they want,  But those who can't at least get to see and hear in their own time.


MichelleLOyen's picture

I agree completely, the idea of a global economy is just not there yet--people and goods still do not move freely across country lines. Governments currently restrict the access of scientists to technical meetings and that is a shame, and thus the world could be flatter, to borrow a well-used recent phrase.  My only point was that you have to work out the time zone thing to do "live" conferences sans travel.  Do I think there is a place for non-live symposia?  Yes, absolutely, especially if they ARE on a forum like iMech where questions can be posed to the speaker for days and even months after the event.  I would think the technology to do this would not require anything different from what we already have--video the talk, upload to Youtube, link on iMech and allow anyone to start asking questions and discussing.   It's a great model and one we could all practically implement tomorrow in our own respective seminar series.  But for the moment I'm with Pradeep and still flying across oceans several times per year for "priceless" live interactions in real time. 

Indeed. On websites, like, asking moderated questions to a well-known tech personality.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Taher Saif has just pointed out this set of slides and vidoes of a recent summer course.

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