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The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives two definitions for the adjective “virtual”: (d1) “. . . made to appear to exist by the use of computer software, for example on the internet”, and (d2) “. . . almost or very nearly the thing described, so that any slight difference is not important”. How close to these definitions was MICRO 2020?

Global online participation: double than the in-person edition

We decided to call MICRO 2020 (MICRO-53 if you prefer to use the edition number) “a global online event” to emphasize the potential to spread the word of the symposium to locations around the globe that are not typically represented in the in-person format. This was the case: around 1100 participants attended the symposium from 42 countries in all continents and time zones. Participation was truly live and in real time, i.e. not only through asynchronously watching the pre-recorded videos or downloading the proceedings, but also connecting to the live webinar rooms most of the time. MICRO sessions were attended by participants from time zones up to 20 hours apart! Despite the large time difference every single session of the symposium (including all workshop and tutorial units of the weekend) was attended by 100-400 people during all times. At every given point of time in the five days the three parallel rooms had 400-600 participants connected in total.

The combination of the Whova event management platform with Zoom live conferencing offered flexible access and engagement through browsers, desktop apps and mobile apps.  While some compatibility issues with some browsers remain unresolved, we expect that these platforms will continue to improve for each conference. Future organizers may also want to consider live streaming to YouTube as an option.

Please check the MICRO 2020 “Trip” Report blog article for a wonderful summary from an attendee’s point of view (thank you Biswabandan Panda).

Program structure as in the in-person edition

The program structure was kept exactly the same as was planned for the in-person setup: three parallel “rooms” throughout the five days – workshops and tutorials during the weekend, the main symposium during the three weekdays, three keynote talks, awards, student competition – not a single piece of MICRO was left behind.

The condensed live schedule of each day (limited to 4-5 hours in total) was aiming to keep attendees busy for a relatively short part of their day regardless of their time zone and avoid exclusion of participants from any time zone from attending. This was a significantly different approach compared to other sibling events that had two or three times longer program during each day. This is an important aspect that future events organizers should consider depending on the geographical distribution of the participants and the number of talks in the main program.

To learn how the main symposium program was built, please check the Experiences and Lessons from A Virtual Program Committee Meeting blog article for the magic behind the way the Program Co-Chairs Mattan Erez and Jun Yang ran the paper selection process as a “global online” procedure as well. That was a herculean task given the all-times record number of paper submissions – 446.

Live Q&A as in the in-person edition

In the live sessions of MICRO we tried to enhance the way questions and answers take place. Apart from typing in questions in the virtual platforms’ Q&A interfaces, we asked attendees to sign up upfront as “questioners” and use their voice to ask. This was a successful experiment that added vividness and that resulted in almost all sessions having attendees asking live interesting questions. Our recommendation to forthcoming event organizers is to adopt and enhance this approach. All our session chairs happily took the task of managing both the live and the typed-in questions in addition to their own questions.

The missing senses

But what certainly makes virtual or global online events inferior than in-person ones is that 60% of human senses are missing: smell, taste, touch. The smell and taste of Greek food and drink is what we missed this year at MICRO (same with other amazing local cuisines in sibling events that also ran virtually in the last months). And we also missed touching each other, shaking hands and tapping backs in the hallway, the ballrooms, the restaurants. And yes coffee! You will agree that coffee does not taste or smell the same when you drink it alone in your office in front of your computer and when you drink it with friends and colleagues in the hallway! Of course you don’t have to queue up to get your cup when you are at home (although some times I do have to queue up; I am given the lowest priority . . .).

The best feeling

After an intense period of organizing and running a symposium of the scale and prestige of MICRO during these uncertain days many feelings compete to each other. What prevails is the feeling of warmth coming from literally everyone involved. All members of the organizing committee devoted huge amounts of time and energy and kept constantly proposing ideas and solutions to improve the experience. All colleagues of past in-person and recent virtual events responded with suggestions and hints exactly when they were needed. All attendees participated in every part of the program in the communication platform, the live streaming platform. The hundreds of emails and messages I received and I keep receiving emit a warmth that is literally felt on the skin.

So, what was it at the end?

MICRO 2020 was clearly compatible with definition (d1) of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary for “virtual” – like all other events did and do, we resorted on the power of computing and communication to implement it; this is what we do for living anyway in this community! For definition (d2) I am not sure. We all did our best to make it as close as possible to the real, in-person symposium. But the missing senses are not really “slight differences that are not important”.

The Athens edition of MICRO has been rescheduled for October 2021 as MICRO-54. The new lighting of the Acropolis and the Parthenon will be waiting for us.

About the author: Dimitris Gizopoulos is Professor of Computer Architecture at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (U Athens) and General Chair of MICRO-53 and MICRO-54.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.