Alia Sheikh (@alteralias) is researching immersive and interactive content. At present she is interested in the narrative language of immersive environments and how stories can best be choreographed within them.
Being part of an international academic research community and actually meeting said international research community are not exactly the same thing it turns out. After attending the 2019 ACM MMSys conference this year, I have decided that leaving the office and actually meeting the people behind the research is very worth doing.
This year I was invited to give an overview presentation at ACM MMSys ’19, which was being hosted at the University of Massachusetts. The MMSys, NOSSDAV and MMVE (International Workshop on Immersive Mixed and Virtual Environment Systems) conferences happen back to back, in a different location each year. I was asked to talk about some of our team’s experiments in immersive storytelling at MMVE. This included our current work on lightfields and my work on directing attention in, and the cinematography of, immersive environments.
To be honest it wasn’t the most convenient time to decide to catch a plane to New York and then a train to Boston for a multi-day conference, but it felt like the right time to take a break from the office and find out what the rest of the community had been working on.
I arrived at Amherst the day before the conference and (along with another delegate who had taken the same bus) wandered the tranquil university grounds slightly lost before being rescued by the ever calm and cheerful Michael Zink. Michael is the chair of the MMSys organising committee and someone who later spent much of the conference introducing people with shared interests to each other – he appeared to know every delegate by name.
Once installed in my UMass hotel room, I proceeded to spend the evening on my usual pre-conference ritual: entirely rewriting my presentation.
As the timetable would have it, I was going to be the first speaker.
I don’t actually know why I do this to myself, but there is something about turning up to the event proper that gives you a sense of what will work for that particular audience, and Michael had given me a brilliantly concise snapshot of the type of delegate that MMSys attracts – highly motivated, expert on the nuts and bolts of how to get data to where it needs to be and likely to be interested in a big picture overview of how these systems can be used to create a meaningful human connection.
Using selected examples from our research, I put together a talk on how the experience of stories in high tech immersive environments differs from more traditional formats, but, once the language of immersive cinematography is properly understood, we find that we are able to create new narrative experiences that are both meaningful and emotionally rich.
The next morning I walked into an auditorium full of strangers filing in, gave my talk (I thought it went well?) and then sank happily into a plush red flip-seat chair safe in the knowledge that I was free to enjoy the rest of the event.
The next item was the keynote and easily one of the best talks I have ever experienced at a conference. Presented by Professor Nimesha Ranasinghe it was a masterclass in taking an interesting problem (how do we transmit a full sensory experience over a network?) And presenting it in such a way as to neatly break down and explain the science (we can electrically stimulate the tongue to recreate a taste!) while never losing sight of the inherent joy in working on the kind of science you dream of as a child (therefore electrified cutlery!).
At lunch I discovered the benefit of having presented my talk early – I made a lot of friends with people who had specific questions about our work, and got a useful heads up on work they were presenting either in the afternoon’s long papers session or the poster session.
We all spent the evening at the welcome reception on the top floor of UMass Hotel, where we ate a huge variety of tiny, delicious cakes and got to know each other better. It was obvious that in some cases, researchers that might collaborate remotely all year, were able to use MMSys as an excellent opportunity to catch up. As a newcomer to this ACM conference however, I have to say that I found it a very welcoming event, and I met a lot of very friendly people many of them working on research that was entirely different to my own, but which seemed to offer an interesting insight or area of overlap.
I wasn’t surprised that I really enjoyed MMVE – virtual environments are very much my topic of interest right now. But I was delighted by how much of MMSys was entirely up my street. ACM MMSys provides a forum for researchers to present and share their latest research findings in multimedia systems, and the conference cuts across all media/data types to showcase the intersections and the interplay of approaches and solutions developed for different domains. This year, the work presented on how to best encode and transport mixed reality content, as well as predict head motion to better encode and deliver the part of a spherical panorama a viewer was likely to be looking at, was particularly interesting to me. I wondered whether comparing the predicted path of user attention to the desired path of user attention, would teach us how to better control a users attention within a panoramic scene, or whether peoples viewing patterns were simply too variable. In the Open Datasets & Software track, I was fascinated by one particular dataset: “ A Dataset of Eye Movements for the Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”. This was a timely reminder for me that diversity within the audience needed to be catered for when designing multimedia systems, to avoid consigning sections of our audience to a substandard experience.
Of the demos, there were too many interesting ones to list, but I was hugely impressed by the demo for Multi-Sensor Capture and Network Processing for Virtual Reality Conferencing. This used cameras and Kinects to turn me into a point cloud and put a live 3D representation of my own physical body in a virtual space.A brilliantly simple and incredibly effective idea and I found myself sitting next to the people responsible for it at a talk later that day and discussing ways to optimise their data compression.
Despite wearing a headset that allowed me to see the other participants, I was still able to see and therefore use my own hands in the real world – even extending to picking up and using my phone.
Amusingly, I found that I was (virtually) sat next to a point-cloud of TNO researcher Omar Niamut which led to my favourite twitter exchange of the whole conference. I knew Omar from online, but we had never actually managed to meet in real life. Still, this was the most life-like digital incarnation yet!
I really should mention the Women’s and Diversity lunch event which (pleasingly) was attended by both men and women and offered some absolutely fascinating insights.
These included: the value of mentors over the course of a successful academic life, how a gender pay-gap is inextricably related to work family policies and steps that have successfully been taken by some countries and organisations to improve work-life balance for all genders.
It was incredibly refreshing to see these topics being discussed both scientifically and openly. The conversations I had with people afterwards as they opened up about their own experiences of work and parenthood, were among the most interesting I have ever had on the topic.
Another nice surprise – MMSys offers childcare grants available for conference attendees who are bringing small children to the conference and require on-site childcare or who incur extra expenses in leaving their children at home. It was very cheering to see that the Inclusion Policy did not stop at simply providing interesting talks, but also translated into specific inclusive action.
I am delighted that I made the decision to attend MMSys. I had not realised that I was feeling somewhat detached from my peers and the academic research community in general, until I was put in an environment which contained a concentrated amount of interesting research, interesting researchers and an air of collaboration and sheer good will. It is easy to get tunnel vision when you are focused on your own little area of work, but every conversation I had at the conference reminded me that research does not happen in a vacuum.
I could write a thousand more words about every interesting thing I saw or person I met at MMSys, but that would only give you my own specific experience of the conference. (I did live tweet* a lot of the talks and demos just for my own records and that can all be found here: https://twitter.com/Alteralias/status/1148546945859952640?s=20)
Whether you were someone I was sitting next to at a paper session, a person I spoke to standing next to in line at the food truck (one of the many sociable meal events) or someone who demoed their PhD work to me, thank you so much for sharing this event with me.
Maybe I will see you at MMSys 2020.
* p.s it turns out that if you live-tweet an entire conference, Niall gives you a Social Media Reporter award.