Report from ACM MMSys 2020 by Conor Keighrey

Conor Keighrey (@ConorKeighrey) recently completed his PhD in the Athlone Institute of Technology which aimed to capture and understand the quality of experience (QoE) within a novel immersive multimedia speech and language assessment. He is currently interested in exploring the application of immersive multimedia technologies within health, education and training.


With a warm welcome from Istanbul, Ali C. Begen (Ozyegin University and Networked Media, Turkey) opened MMSys 2020 this year. In light of the global pandemic, the conference has taken a new format being delivered online for the first time. This, however, was not the only first for MMSys, Laura Toni (University College London, UK) is introduced as the first-ever female co-chair for the conference. This year, the organising committee presented gender and culturally diverse line-up of researchers from all around the globe. In parallel, two new grand challenges were introduced on the topics of “Improving Open-Source HEVC Encoding” and “Low-latency live streaming” for the first time ever at MMSys. 

The conference attracted paper submissions from a range of multimedia topics including but not limited to streaming technologies, networking, machine learning, volumetric media, and fake media detection tools. Core areas were complemented with in-depth keynotes delivered by academic and industry experts. 

Examples of such include Ryan Overbeck’s (Google, USA) keynote on “Light Fields – Building the Core Immersive Photo and Video Format for VR and AR” presented on the first day. Light fields provide the opportunity to capture full 6DOF and photo-realism in virtual reality. In his talk, Ryan provided key insight into the camera rigs and results from Google’s recent approach to perfect the capture of virtual representations of real-world spaces.

Later during the conference, Roderick Hodgson from Amber Video presented an interesting keynote on “Preserving Video Truth: an Anti-Deepfakes Narrative”. Roderick delivered a fantastic overview of the emerging area of deep fakes, and the application platforms which are being developed to detect, what will without a doubt be used as highly influential media streams in the future. Discussion closed with Stefano Petrangeli asking how the concept of deep fakes could be applied within the context of AR filters. Although AR is within its infancy from a visual quality perspective, the future may rapidly change how we perceive faces through immersive multimedia experiences utilizing AR filters. The concept is interesting, and it leads to the question of what future challenges will be seen with these emerging technologies.

Although not the main focus of the MMSys conference, the co-located workshops have always stood out for me. I have attended MMSys for the last three years and the warm welcome expressed by all members of the research community has been fantastic. However, the workshops have always shined through as they provide the opportunity to meet those who are working in focused areas of multimedia research. This year’s MMSys was no different as it hosted three workshops:

  • NOSSDAV – The International workshop on Network and Operating System Support for Digital Audio and Video
  • PV – The International Packet Video Workshop
  • MMVE – The International Workshop on Immersive Mixed and Virtual Environment Systems

With a focus on novel immersive media experiences, the MMVE workshop was highly successful with five key presentations exploring the topics of game mechanics, cloud computing, head-mounted display field of view prediction, navigation, and delay. Highlights include the work presented by Na Wang et. Al (George Mason University) which explored field of view prediction within augmented reality experiences on mobile platforms. With the emergence of new and proposed areas of research in augmented reality cloud, field of view predication will alleviate some of the challenges associated with the optimization of network communication for novel immersive multimedia experiences in the future. 

Unlike previous years, conference organisers faced the challenge of creating social events which were completely online. A trivia night hosted on Zoom brought over 40 members of the MMSys community together virtually to test their knowledge against a wide array of general knowledge. Utilizing online the platform “Kahoot”, attendees were challenged with a series of 47 questions. With great interaction from the audience, the event provided a great opportunity to socialise in a relaxing manner much like the real world counterpart! 

Leader boards towards the end were close, with Wei Tsang Ooi gaining the first place with a last-minute bonus question! Jean Botev and Roderick Hodgson took second and third place respectively. Events like this have always been a highlight of the MMSys community, we hope to see it take place this coming year in person over some quite beers and snacks!

Mea Wang opened the N2Women Meeting on the 10th of June. The event openly discussed core influential topics such as the separation of work and life needs within the research community. With a primary objective of assisting new researchers to maintain a healthy work and life balance. Overall, the event was a success, the topic of work and life balance is important for those at all stages of their research careers. Reflecting on my own personal experiences during my PhD, it can be a struggle to determine when to “clock out” and when to spend a few extra hours engaged with research. Key members of the community shared their own personal experiences, discussing other topics such the importance of mentoring, as academic supervisors can often become a mentor for life. Ozgu Alay discussed the importance of developing connections at research-orientated events. Those new to the community should not be afraid to spark a conversation with experts in the field, often the ideal approach is to take interest in their work and begin discussion from there. 

Lastly, Mea Wang mentioned that the initiative had initially acquired funding for the purpose of travel supports and childcare for those attending the conference. Due to the online nature this year, the supports have now been placed aside for next year’s event. Such funding provides a fantastic opportunity to support the cost of attending an international conference and engage with the multimedia community!

Closing the conference, Ali C. Begen opened with the announcement of the awards. The Best Paper Award was presented by Özgü Alay and Christian Timmerer who announced Nan Jiang et al as the winner for their paper on “QuRate: Power-Efficient Mobile Immersive Video Streaming”. The paper is available for download on the ACM Digital Library at the following link. The conference closed with the announcement of key celebrations for next year as the NOSSDAV workshop celebrates it’s 30thanniversary, and the Packet Video workshop celebrates the 25th anniversary! 

Overall, the expertise in multimedia shined through in this year’s ACM MMSys, with fantastic keynotes, presentations, and demonstrations from researchers around the globe. Although there are many benefits to attending a virtual conference, after numerous experiences this year I can’t help but feel there is something missing. Over the past 3 years, I’ve attended ACM MMSys in person as a PhD candidate, one of the major benefits of in person events are social encounters. Although this year’s iteration of ACM MMSys did a phenomenal job at the presentation of these events in the new and unexpected virtual format. I believe that it is these social events which shine through as they provide the opportunity to meet, discuss, and develop professional and social links throughout the multimedia research community in a more relaxed setting. 

As a result, I look forward to what Özgü Alay, Cheng-Hsin Hsu, and Ali C. Begen have in store for us at ACM Multimedia Systems 2021, located in the beautiful city of Istanbul, Turkey.

ACM IMX 2020: What does “going virtual” mean?

I work in the department of Research & Development, based in London, at the BBC. My interests include Interactive and Immersive Media, Interaction Design, Evaluative Methods, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Synchronised Experiences & Connected Homes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I serve on the steering board of ACM Interactive Media Experiences (IMX) as Vice President for Conferences. It was an honour to be invited to the organising committee as one of IMX’s first Diversity Co-Chairs and as a Doctoral Consortium Co-Chair. I will also be the General Co-Chair for ACM IMX 2021
I hope you join us at IMX 2021 but if you need convincing, please read on about my experiences with IMX 2020!
I am quite active on Twitter (@What2DoNext), so I don’t think it came as a massive surprise to the IMX community that I won the award of the Best Social Media Reporter for ACM IMX 2020. Here are some of the award-winning tweets describing a workshop, a creative challenge, the opening keynote, my co-author presenting our paper (which incidentally won an honourable mention), the closing keynote and announcing the venue for ACM IMX 2021. This report is a summary of my experiences with IMX 2020.

Before the conference

Summary of activities at IMX 2020.

For the first time in the history of IMX, it was going entirely virtual. As if that wasn’t enough, IMX 2020 was the conference that got rebranded. In 2019, it was called TVX – Interactive Experiences for Television and Online Video! However, the steering committee unanimously voted to rename and rebrand it to reflect the fact that the conference had outgrown its original remit. The new name – Interactive Media Experiences (IMX) – was succinct and all-compassing of the conference’s current scope. With the rebrand, came a revival of principles and ethos. For the first time in the history of IMX, the organising committee worked with the steering committee to include Diversity co-chairs. 

The tech industry has suffered from a lack of diverse representation, and 2020 was the year, we decided to try to improve the situation in the IMX community. So, in addition to holding the position of the Doctoral Consortium co-chair, a relatively well-defined role, I was invited to be one of two Diversity chairs. The conference was going to take place in Barcelona, Spain – a city I have been lucky to visit multiple times. I love the people, the culture, the food (and wine) and the city, especially in the summer. The organisation was on track when, due to the unprecedented and global pandemic, we called in an emergency meeting to immediately transfer conference activities to various online platforms. Unfortunately, we lost one keynote, a panel, & 3 workshops, but we managed to transfer the rest into a live virtual event over a combination of platforms: Zoom, Mozilla Hubs, Miro, Slack & Sli.do.

The organising committee came together to reach out to the IMX community to ask for their help in converting their paper, poster and demo presentations to a format suitable for a virtual conference. We were quite amazed at how the community came together to make the virtual conference possible. Quite a few of us spent a lot of late nights getting everything ready!

We set about creating an accessible program and proceedings with links to the various online spaces scheduled to host track sessions and links to papers for better access using the SIGCHI progressive web app and the ACM Publishing System. It didn’t hurt that one of our Technical Program chairs, David A. Shamma, is the current SIGCHI VP of Operations. It was also helpful to have access to the ACM’s guide for virtual conferences and the experience gained by folks like Blair McIntyre (general co-chair of IEEE VR 2020 & Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology). We also got lots of support from Liv Erickson (Emerging Tech Product Manager at Mozilla).

About a week before the conference, Mario Montagud (General Co-Chair) sent an email to all registered attendees to inform them about how to join. Honestly, there were moments when I thought it might be touch and go. I had issues with my network, last-minute committee jobs kept popping up, and social distancing was becoming problematic.

During the conference…

Traditionally, IMX brings together international researchers and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines to attend workshops and challenges on the first day followed by two days of keynotes, panels, paper presentations, posters and demos. The activities are interspersed with lunches, networking with colleagues, copious coffee and a social event. 

The advantage of a virtual event is that I had no jet lag and I woke up in my bed at home on the day of the conference. However, I had to provide my coffee and lunches in the 2020 instantiation while (very briefly) considering the option of attending an international conference in my pyjamas. The other early difference is that I didn’t get a name badge in a conference branded registration packet, however, due to my committee roles at IMX 2020, the communications team made us zoom background ‘badges’ – which I loved!

Virtual Backgrounds for use in Zoom.

My first day was exciting and diverse! I had a three-hour workshop in the morning (starting 10 AM BST) titled “Toys & the TV: Serious Play” I had organised with my colleagues Suzanne Clark and Barbara Zambrini from BBC R&D, Christoph Ziegler from IRT and Rainer Kirchknopf from ZDF. We had a healthy interest in the workshop and enthusiastic contributions. A few of the attendees contributed idea/position papers while the other attendees were asked to support their favourite amongst the presented ideas. The groups of people were then sent to a breakout group to work on the concept and produce a newspaper-type summary page of an exemplar manifestation of the idea. We all worked over Zoom and a collaborative whiteboard on Miro. It was the virtual version of an interactive “post-it on a wall” type workshop. 

Then it was time for lunch and a cup of tea while managing home learning activities for my kids. Usually, I would have been hunting for a quiet place in the conference venue (depending on the time difference) to facetime with my kids. None of that in 2020! I could chat with my fellow organising committee to make sure things were running smoothly and offer aid if needed. Most of the day’s activities were being efficiently coordinated by Mario, based during the conference, at the i2Cat offices in Barcelona.

Around 4 PM (BST), I had a near four-hour creative challenge meet up. However, before that, I dropped into the IMX in Latin America workshop which was organised by colleagues in (you guessed it) Latin America as a way to introduce the work they do to IMX. Things were going well in that workshop, so after a quick hello to the organisers, I rushed over to take part in the creative challenge!

The creative challenge, titled “Snap Creative Challenge: Reimagine the Future of Storytelling with Augmented Reality (AR) ”, was an invited event. It was sponsored by Snap (Andrés Monroy-Hernández) and co-organised by Microsoft Research (Mar González-Franco) and BBC Research & Development (myself). Earlier in the year, over six months, eleven academic teams from eight countries created AR projects to demonstrate their vision of what storytelling would look like in a world where AR is more prevalent. We mentored the teams with the help of Anthony Steed (University College London), Nonny de La Peña (Emblematic Group), Rajan Vaish (Snap), Vanessa Pope (Queen Mary, University of London), and some colleagues who generously donated their time and expertise. We started with a welcome to the event (hosted on Zoom) given by Andrés Monroy-Hernández and then it was straight into presentations of the project. Snap created a summary video of the ideas presented on the day. 

Each project was distinct, unique and had the potential for so much more development and expansion. The creative challenge was closed by one of the co-founders of Snap (Bobby Murphy). After closing, some teams had office hours where we could go and have an extended chat about the various projects. Everyone was super enthusiastic and keen to share ideas.

It was 8.20 PM, so I had to end the day with my glass of wine with my other half, but I had a brilliant day and couldn’t get over how many interesting people I got to chat to – and it was just the first day of the conference! On the second day of the conference, Christian Timmerer (Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt & Bitmovin) and I had an hour-long doctoral consortium to host bright and early at 9 AM (BST). Three doctoral students presented a variety of topics. Each student was assigned two mentors who were experts in the field the students were working in. This year, the organising committee were keen to ensure diverse participation through all streams of the conference so, Christian and I kept this in mind in choosing mentors for the doctoral students. We were also able to invite mentors regardless of whether they would travel to a venue or not since everyone was attending online. In a way, it gave us more freedom to be diverse in our choices and thinking. Turns out one hour was whetting the appetite for everyone but the conference had other activities scheduled in the day, so I quite liked having a short break before my next session at noon! Time for another cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate! 

The general chairs (Pablo Cesar – CWI, Mario Montagud & Sergi Fernandez – i2Cat) welcomed everyone to the conference at noon (BST). Pablo gave a summary of the number of participants we had at IMX. This is one of the most unfortunate things in a virtual conference. It’s difficult to get a sense of ‘being together’ with the other attendees at the conference but we got some idea from Pablo. Asreen Rostami (RISE) and I gave a summary of diversity & inclusion activities we put in place through the organisation of the conference to begin the process of improving the representation of under-represented groups within the IMX community. Unfortunately, a lot of the plans were not implemented once IMX 2020 went virtual but some of the guidance to inject diverse thinking into all parts of the conference were still carried out – ensuring that the make-up of the ACs was diverse, encouraging workshop organisers to include a diverse set of participants and use inclusive language, casting a wider net in our search for keynotes and mentors, and selecting a time period to run the conference that was best suited to a majority of our attendees. The Technical Program Co-Chair (Lucia D’Acunto, TNO) gave a summary of how the tracks were populated w.r.t papers. To round off the opening welcome for IMX 2020, Mario gave an overview of communication channels, the tools used and the conference program. The wonderful thing about being in a virtual conference is that you can easily screenshot presentations, so you have a good record of what happened. Under pre-pandemic situations, I would have photographed the slides on a screen on stage from my seat in the auditorium hall. So unfashionable in 2020 – you will agree. Getting a visual reminder of talks is useful if you want to remember key points! It also exceedingly good for illustrations as part of a report you might write about the conference three months later.

Sergi Fernandez introduced the opening keynote: Mel Slater (University of Barcelona) who talked about using Virtual Reality to Change Attitudes and Behaviour. Mel was my doctoral supervisor back in between 2001 and 2006 when I did a PhD at UCL. He was the reason I decided to focus my postgraduate studies to build expressive virtual characters. It was fantastic to “go to a conference with him” again even if he got the seat with the better weather. His opening keynote was engaging, entertaining and gave a lot of food for thought. He also had a new video of his virtual self being a rock star. To this day, I believe this is the main reason he got into VR in the first place! And why ever not?

Immediately after Mels’ talk and Q&A session, it was time to inform attendees about the demos and posters available for viewing as part of the conference. The demos and posters were displayed in a series of Mozilla Hubs rooms (domes) created by Jesús Gutierrez (Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, Demo co-chair) and I, based off some models given to us by Liv (Mozilla). We were able to personalise the virtual spaces and give it a Spanish twist using a couple of panorama images David A. Shamma (FXPAL & Technical Program co-chair for IMX 2020) found on Flickr. Ayman and Julie Williamson (Univ. of Glasgow) also enabled the infrastructure behind the IMX Hub spaces. Jesús and I gave a short ‘how-to’ presentation to let attendees know what to expect in the IMX Hub Spaces. After our presentation, Mario played a video of pitches giving us quick lightning summaries of the demos, work-in-progress poster presentations and doctoral consortium poster displays.

Thirty minutes later, it was time for the first paper session of the day (and the conference)! Ayman chaired the first four papers in the conference in a session titled ‘Augmented TV’. The first paper presented was one I co-authored with Radu-Daniel Vatavu (Univ. Stefan cel Mare of Suceava), Pejman Saeghe (Univ. of Manchester), Teresa Chambel (Univ. of Lisbon), and Marian F Ursu (Univ. of York). The paper (‘Conceptualising Augmented Reality Television for the Living Room’) examined the characteristics of Augmented Reality Television (ARTV) by analysing commonly accepted views on augmented and mixed reality systems, by looking at previous work, by looking at tangential fields (ambient media, interactive TV, 3D TV etc.) and by proposing a conceptual framework for ARTV – the “Augmented Reality Television Continuum”. The presentation is on the ACM SIGCHI’s YouTube channel if you feel like watching Pejman talk about the paper instead of reading it or maybe in addition to reading it!

Ayman and Pejman talking about our paper ‘Conceptualising Augmented Reality Television for the Living Room

I did not present the paper, but I was still relieved that it was done! I have noticed that once a paper I was involved with is done, I tend to have enough headspace to engage and ask questions of other authors. So that’s what I was able to do for the rest of the conference. In that same first paper session, Simon von der Au (IRT) et al. presented ‘The SpaceStation App: Design and Evaluation of an AR Application for Educational Television’ in which they got to work with models and videos of the International Space Station! Now, I love natural history documentaries so when I need to work with content, I don’t think I can go wrong if I choose David Attenborough narrated content – think Blue Planet. However, the ISS is a close second! They also cited two of my co-authored papers – Ziegler et al. 2018 and Saeghe et al. 2019 – which is always lovely to see.

After the first session, we had a 30-minute break before making our way to the Hubs Domes to look at demos and posters. Our outstanding student volunteers were deployed to guide IMX attendees to various domes. It was very satisfying seeing all our Hubs space populated with demos/posters with snippets of conversation flowing past as I passed through the domes to see how folks fared in the space. The whole experience resulted in a lot of selfies and images!

There were moments of delight throughout the event. I thought I’d rebel against my mom and get pink hair! Pablo got purple hair and IRL he does not have hair that colour (or that uniformly distributed). Ayman and I tried getting some virtual drinks – I got myself a pina colada while Ayman stayed sober. I also visited all the posters and demos which seldom happens when I attend conferences IRL. In Hubs, it was an excellent way to ‘bump into’ folks. I have been in the IMX community for a while, so I was able to recognise many people by reading their floating name labels. Most of their avatars looked nothing like the people I knew! Christian and Omar Niamut (TNO) had more photorealistic avatars but even those were only recognisable if I squinted! I was also very jealous of Omar’s (and Julie’s) virtual hands which they got because they visited the domes using their VR headsets. It was loads of fun seeing how people represented themselves through their virtual clothes, hair and body choice. 

All of the demos and posters were well presented but the ‘Watching Together but Apart’ caught my eye because I knew my colleagues Rajiv RamdhanyLibby Miller, and Kristian Hentschel built ‘BBC Together’ – an experimental BBC R&D prototype to enable people to watch and listen to BBC programmes together while they are physically apart. It was a response to the situation brought to a lot of our doorsteps by the pandemic! It was amazing to see that another research group responded in the same way to build a similar application. It was great fun talking to Jannik Munk Bryld about their project and compare notes.

Once the paper session was over, there was a 45 minutes break to stretch our legs and rest our eyes. Longer in-between session breaks are a necessity in virtual conferences. At 2:30 PM (BST), it was time to listen to two industry talks chaired by Steve Schirra (YouTube) and Mikel Zorrilla (Vicomtech). Mike Darnell (Samsung Electronics America) talked of conclusions he drew from a survey study of hundreds of participants which focused on user behaviour when it came to choosing what to watch on the TV. The main take-home message was that people generally knew in advance exactly what they want to watch on TV.

Natàlia Herèdia (Media UX Design) talked of her pop-up media lab focusing on designing an OTT for a local public channel. She spoke of the process she used and gave a summary of her work on reaching new audiences. 

After the industry talk, it was time for a half an hour break. The organising committee and student volunteers went out to the demo domes in Hubs to get a group selfie! We realised that Ayman has serious ambitions when it comes to cinematography. After we got our shots, we attended another paper session chaired by Aisling Kelliher (Virginia Tech) titled ‘Live Production and Audience’. Other people might have mosquitos or mice as a pest problem. In this paper session, I learnt that there are people like Aisling whose pest problems are a little more significant – like bear sized bigger! So many revelations in such a short time! 

The first paper of the last session, titled ‘DAX: Data-Driven Audience Experiences in Esports’, was presented by Athanasios Vasileios Kokkinakis (Univ. of York). He gave a fascinating insight into how companion screen applications might allow audiences to consume interesting data-driven insights during and around the broadcasts of Esports. It was great to see this wort of work since I have some history of working on companion screen applications with sports being one of the genres that could benefit from multi-device applications. The paper won the best paper award! Yvette Wohn (New Jersey Institute of Technology) presented a paper, titled ‘Audience Management practices of Live Streamers on Twitch’, in which she interviewed Twitch streamers to understand how streamers discover audience composition and use appropriate mechanisms to interact with them. The last paper of the conference was presented by Marian –  ‘Authoring Interactive Fictional Stories in Object-Based Media (OBM)’. The paper referred to quite a few BBC R&D OBM projects. Again, it was quite lovely to see some reaffirmation of ideas with similar thought processes flowing through the screen.

At 6 PM (BST), I had the honour of chairing the closing keynote by Nonny. Nonny had a lot of unique immersive journalism pieces to show us! She also gave us a live demo of her XR creation, remixing and sharing platform – REACH.love. She imported a virtual character inspired by the Futurama animated character – Bender. Incidentally, my very first virtual character was also created in Bender’s image. I had to remove the antenna off his head because Anthony Steed, who was my project lead at the time, wasn’t as appreciative of my character design – tragic times. 

Alas, we had come near the end of the conference which meant it was time for Mario to give a summary of numbers to indicate how many attendees participated in IMX 2020 – spoiler: it was the highest attendance yet. He also handed out various awards. It turns out that our co-authored paper on ‘Conceptualising Augmented Reality Television for the Living Room’ got an honourable mention! More importantly, I was awarded the best social media reporter which is of course why you are reading this report! I guess this is an encouragement to keep on tweeting about IMX!

Frank Bentley (Verizon Media, IMX Steering Committee president) gave a short presentation in which he acknowledged that it was June the 19th – Juneteenth (Freedom Day) in the US. He gave a couple of poignant suggestions on how we might consider marking the day. He also talked about the rebranding exercise that resulted in the conference going from TVX to IMX.

Frank also announced that we are looking for host bids for IMX 2022! As VP of Conferences, I would be very excited to hear from you! Please do email me if you are looking for information about hosting an IMX conference in 2022 or beyond. You can also drop me a tweet @What2DoNext!

He then handed over the floor to Yvette and me to announce the proposed venue of IMX 2021 – New York! A few of the organising committee positions are still up for grabs. Do consider joining our exciting and diverse organising committee if you feel like you could contribute to making IMX 2021 a success! In the meantime, I managed to persuade my lovely colleague at BBC R&D (Vicky Barlow) to make a teaser video to introduce IMX 2021.

That brought us to the end of IMX 2020, sadly. The stragglers of the IMX community lingered a little to have a little bit of chat over zoom which was lovely.

After the conference…

You would think that once the conference was over, that was it but no, not so. In years past, all that was left to do was to stalk people you met at the conference on LinkedIn to make sure the ‘virtual business cards’ were saved. Of course, I did a bit of that this year as well. However, this year had been a much more involved experience. I have had a chance to define the role of Diversity chairs with Asreen. I have had the chance to work with Ayman, Julie, Jesús, Liv and Blair to bring demos and posters to Hubs as part of the IMX 2020 virtual experience. It was a blast! You might have thought that I would be taking a rest! You would be wrong! 

I am joining forces with Yvette and the rest of a whole new committee to start organising IMX 2021 – New York into a format that continues the success of IMX 2020 and strive to improve on it. Finally, let’s not forget Frank’s reminder that we are looking for colleagues out there (maybe you?) to host IMX 2022 and beyond! 

The story continues… Do get in touch!

Report from MMSYS 2019 – by Alia Sheikh

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.

Fig.1: A picturesque scene from the wonderful University of Massachussetts Amherst campus

Fig.1: A picturesque scene from the wonderful University of Massachussetts Amherst campus

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.

Fig 2: Attendees at MMSys 2019 taking their seats

Fig. 2: Attendees at MMSys 2019 taking their seats

Fig 3: Alia in full flow during our talk on day 1

Fig. 3: Alia in full flow during our talk on day 1

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!).

Fig. 4: Professor Nimesha Ranasinghe during his talk on Multisensory experiences

Fig. 4: Professor Nimesha Ranasinghe during his talk on Multisensory experiences

Fig 5: Multisensory enhanced multimedia - experiences of the future ?

Fig. 5: Multisensory enhanced multimedia – experiences of the future ?

Fig6: Networking and some delicious lunch

Fig. 6: Networking and some delicious lunch

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.

Fig7: Trying out some cool demos during a bustling demo session

Fig. 7: Trying out some cool demos during a bustling demo session

Fig. 8: An example of the social media interaction from my "tweeting"

Fig. 8: An example of the social media interaction from my “tweeting”

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.

Fig. 9:  Women’s and Diversity lunch! What a wonderful initiative - well done MMSys and SIGMM

Fig. 9: Women’s and Diversity lunch! What a wonderful initiative – well done MMSys and SIGMM

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.

Fig. 10: A fascinating talk at the  Women’s and Diversity lunch - it initiated great post event discussions!

Fig. 10: A fascinating talk at the Women’s and Diversity lunch – it initiated great post event discussions!

Fig. 11: The food truck experience - one of many wonderful social aspects to MMSys 2019

Fig. 11: The food truck experience – one of many wonderful social aspects to MMSys 2019

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)

Fig. 12: Receiving the SIGMM Social Media Reporter Award for MMSys 2019!

Fig. 12: Receiving the SIGMM Social Media Reporter Award for MMSys 2019!

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.