Format for the ICLR2020 Virtual Conference

7 min readMar 24, 2020

ICLR2020 will be hosted as a fully virtual conference this year. This is an exciting opportunity to experiment with the way we organise our conference and we hope that as many people from our machine learning community will participate in this year’s meeting.

Our Hatata goes virtual, and this post gives an overview of the format, the resources we will be using, and a summary of the deliberations that took place amongst the ICLR organising committees, which we hope can be a basis for future improvements. The description below is how we expect the virtual conference to work, although there may be some changes in case of unforeseen difficulties. If you have some time to support the conference as a volunteer to help us test the conference setup, please sign up here.

🎪 Overall Format

The conference is still set to take place during its originally planned dates: workshops on 26 April, main conference on 27–30 April 2020.

We hope your typical conference day will look like this:

  • You will engage with the conference, wherever you are, through the ICLR portal. This portal is a landing and home for the conference, its talks, discussions, booths, posters and socials.
  • Join the livestream: it will highlight some of the most exciting content, including keynotes and posters, and allow you to discover new content. Make sure to watch the stream at least some of the time.
  • Most of the conference material will consist of pre-recorded videos. All talks for a day will be released around 2am in UTC+12 (New Zealand Time Zone), so you will have access to all the material to explore and learn from them in the ways that work best for you.
  • There will be key times throughout the day in which there will be live sessions. These are either a live video Q&A session with the keynote speakers, or a virtual poster session that consists of 2 hour blocks in which the authors will be available to discuss their work over video call.
  • The conference will also encourage asynchronous conversation, where everyone can continue their discussions using a paper’s chat stream, or to leave questions and comments on the public forum for the paper on OpenReview.
  • You can bump into other participants in the ICLR Corridor, which is a general chat stream, or by joining one of the existing Virtual Booths. These booths will be where you can connect with people around an area of interest, carry on discussions from the workshop throughout the week, host a virtual social, or speak to our sponsors.
  • Making all this work requires several different tools. We hope to integrate these them all together as seamlessly as we can to give you the best experience. There may be a need for changes to this format, but this is the plan we are working to realise.

🙋🏾‍♀️ Keynotes and Poster Sessions

Keynote speakers are a highlight of our conference:

  • Keynote talks will be pre-recorded, so you can watch them fully at a time that works for you, but released daily.
  • There will be at least a 15 minute live session with each speaker where your questions can be answered and for further discussion.
  • You can post your questions and upvote existing questions (using a Q&A tool).
  • We will read out some of these questions to the speaker, and also take a few live questions.

Poster sessions take place both synchronously and asynchronously.

  • All accepted papers (687 papers for the 2020 proceedings) will have a video and slides that you can access from the day of their first poster session.
  • These papers will also have live sessions, where you can jump between different video calls with the authors, ask them questions about their work, or join the video chat to introduce yourself.
  • There will be several poster sessions running in timezones across the world, so there will be several different poster sessions for you to join in each day. The image below shows the currently planned sessions.
Spread of sessions across timezones during the week. Everyone should have several poster sessions to enjoy.

👷 Workshops

The workshops will kick off the 2020 virtual conference.

  • Workshops will follow roughly the same format at the main conference, by having pre-recorded videos for invited talks, and possibly for accepted papers.
  • Since workshops are based around a great deal of discussion, every workshop will decide how they will handle their live interaction.
  • Every workshop will also have a virtual booth to enable their discussions throughout the week.
  • More details from the workshop chairs soon.

👋🏽 Meeting New People and Virtual Booths

‘Booths’ are video sessions where people can join as active or passive participants. There will be a host for each group/booth that will be asked to sign-up before the conference starts. Discussions in Booths are not recorded. There are many types of booths we will have, and are the place where most of the live conversation, and at any time of the day can happen:

  • Sponsor booth: Meet our sponsors and people who work with them, talk about their work, arrange a meeting with a recruiter, etc.
  • Invited: a curated list of invited booths.
  • Workshops: workshops host booths to continue discussions into the week.
  • Affinity booths: Meet members of our community’s active affinity groups.
  • Socials: Social-based discussions that build our community around shared interests.
  • Self-organised booth: Simple mechanism for small groups of 2–3 to start a chat, that is not publicly shown on the schedule.

👾 Behind the Scenes

The ICLR organising committees (the board, and general, programme, workshop, diversity, logistics, and organisational chairs) have been feverishly exchanging messages over last few weeks to work through the details of how to create a virtual conference. We are a beehive whose wings are now beating at the same frequency. This is a quick peek into our decision-making process over the last few weeks.

We first enumerated our key considerations for a virtual conference, resulting in the following requirements.

  • Design a virtual conference plan that can be put together, planned and tested before the conference begins on 26 April 2020.
  • Ensure people across the world can participate, allowing maximum accessibility, including usability, captioning, no/limited geographic restrictions, timezone considerations, internet availability.
  • Ensure safe and respectful online communication and engagement.
  • Facilitate discovery of new research, posters and researchers.
  • Facilitate engagement and communication between participants.
  • To the extent we can, create opportunities for people to serendipitously meet, i.e. simulating the ‘meeting in the corridor’ phenomenon, and colleague introductions.
  • Ensure opportunities and structures for sponsors to be recognised and engaged with.
  • Create an archive of the conference activities.

Conference structure and redundancy. The conference process we described above is one approach we found to satisfy these needs. The conference was designed as two components. The first is a minimum viable virtual conference that is a fully virtual conference without any live interaction, which would be a fallback option in case of any failures or other unforeseen issues. We then added live components and interactions to this to form the virtual conference this post describes. There are many tools that are needed that we have been exploring: video hosting and viewed using SlidesLive, video calls and in-person sessions using Zoom, questions and votes for speakers using Slido, chat using Gitter, papers and reviews using OpenReview. We continue to explore more tools and to find ways to integrate them together in the best way possible.

Time zones and healthy hours. As an international conference, we spent significant time discussing how to accommodate as many time zones as we could. We are allowing access to multiple time zones, by creating multiple poster sessions each day in 5 different time zones across the world, so most people will find a time convenient to them. Because of the overlap in times, this also allows everyone across the world to have multiple poster sessions to participate in during the day (at least 3).

Maximum Accessibility. We wanted to work so that there are several accessibility options, including audio only, captions, etc. To avoid reliance on high-bandwidth Internet connections, we are trying to ensure that videos can be downloaded for later viewing, that quality can be adjusted, and are aiming to have a mirrored location for our videos. We also worked to find tools that work in countries across the world.

Engagement and serendipity. The value of our conferences for many of us lies in the opportunity to meet people and discover new lines of research. This was central to our planning, and is why we chose to create a shared schedule, live poster sessions and live Q&A with invited speakers. We also wanted to facilitate the meetings between sessions, which is why we opted to have many types of Booths for live chat. Our sponsors are an important part of the conference, since it allows us to connect our attendees to available opportunities, and these booths allowed us to support this need.

Written comments, respectful communication and archiving discussions. We needed to consider how to encourage written chat discussions on papers, and ensure those discussions were respectful. We had to update our code of conduct to support online communications. We also considered policies to encourage authors to respond to a minimal number of questions, as well as to ask questions on other papers.

🚄 Next Steps

Our keynote speakers and authors are currently preparing their videos and uploading them. The organising committees will soon start to assign posters to sessions, coordinate the live sessions, test our systems, adjust our policies, and continue to refine this plan to ensure a robust and engaging conference-week.

In our next set of updates, we will introduce our speakers, put out a request for volunteers, put out a call to host a virtual conference booth/socials, give more information on how to create better recorded talks, give a more detailed guide on setting up your systems to use our tools and how to get the best out of the conference, and finally reveal the conference portal.

There is still much to do, but we continue to be grateful for your ongoing encouragement and support. We look forward to meeting you all in a few week’s time — online!

Your ICLR2020 Organising Committees

  • Sasha Rush and Shakir Mohamed (General Chair and Senior Programme Chair)
  • Dawn Song, Kyunghyun Cho, Martha White (Programme Chairs)
  • Asja Fischer and Gabriel Synnaeve (Workshop Chairs)
  • Anima Anandkumar and Kevin Swersky (Diversity Chairs)
  • Andrea Brown and Lee Campbell (ICLR Organisation team)
  • ICLR Board




International Conference on Learning Representations