Going from virtual to hybrid
Many conferences felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to go virtual or cancel their events entirely. However, the organizers of EuroHaptics 2020 opted for a compromise between an in-person conference and a virtual event.
Establishing this sort of hybrid event in these unusual times required special precautions. The maximum number of attendees allowed at the conference venue was 100; the HI Department was perhaps the most strongly represented group with twelve in-person attendees. The attendees had to comply with social distancing rules and hygiene requirements. There was a mix of live and pre-recorded talks, with live Q&A after most presentations.
Many attendees appreciated the hybrid format of the conference, and for some it was a welcome change after attending virtual ones. "As an in-person attendee, I found the hybrid format to be much more engaging than a virtual conference," remarked Dr. Kuchenbecker. "Catching up with old friends and talking with new acquaintances between (or even during) sessions was really refreshing and heartwarming after so many months of corona-induced isolation."
Participants also liked the structure of the talks compared to other virtual ones. "In other virtual conferences that I had attended, each talk was shortened, and all the videos were played back to back with a joint Q&A session," said Hasti Seifi. “It was nice that each talk in this conference had its dedicated Q&A right after it when that topic is still fresh in everyone’s mind."
Yasemin Vardar commented on several benefits of the conference, noting its accessibility and the additional flexibility for attendees. "Being able to present work online is advantageous for labs which have limited financial resources, or students with visa problems," said Dr. Vardar. "At the same time, onsite people can have all the advantages of an in-person conference: networking, engaging conversations, demos without queues, etc."
The attendees listening to the presentations on the first day. The number of people at the sessions was regulated, and the chairs were spread out as precautions against COVID-19. Attendees who could not travel connected to the talks online.
An interactive environment
One great advantage of physically attending the conference was the chance to interact with the hands-on demonstrations. Besides the demos presented by research institutes and universities, many companies had exhibit stands where they showcased their newest products. To keep attendees safe, demo presenters offered disposable gloves (and face protectors for head-mounted displays), and they sanitized their stations regularly. The participants enjoyed trying out many haptic devices that use the latest technologies in the field such as virtual reality combined with force-feedback gloves.
PhD student Paola Forte and post-doctoral researcher Hasti Seifi testing out a robotic teleoperation device.
Haptic Intelligence makes its marks with twelve presentations
The members of HI presented altogether twelve posters and hands-on demonstrations over the three days of the conference, making a noticeable impact on the scientific program. The energetic discussions that took place during the presentations enabled the exchange of ideas and opened up doors to potential collaborations. Live poster presenters could talk to attendees either in person or on a virtual platform of their choice. Ravali Gourishetti, a post-doctoral researcher, was one of two members from the HI department to attend the conference entirely virtually. "I really like the way the organizers handled the conference, which enabled both live and virtual participation," said Dr. Gourishetti. "There was superb IT support. The Slack interface allowed us to also contact the people who attended in person."
Lively discussions took place at each of the nine work-in-progress posters presented by the HI department.
Presentation of three hands-on demonstrations attracted significant attention.
From left to right: Yasemin Vardar, Hasti Seifi, Hyosang Lee, Neha Thomas, and Rachael Bevill Burns
The Haptic Intelligence team
Socializing with social distance
Enabling safe social interactions during a pandemic is a challenge that the organizers faced head on. Every in-person attendee received a high-quality reusable face mask branded with the conference logo; it was the perfect conference gift in the time of coronavirus. Beyond providing the opportunities to mingle with attendees during the socially distanced coffee breaks and bag lunches, the organizers also implemented a virtual event using a spatial chat in which both live and virtual attendees could participate. In-person attendees were also offered an outdoor city tour, with stops at renowned Dutch artist Rembrandt’s place of birth and what used to be the sheep market square. After the workshops on the first day, several attendees gathered outside to enjoy traditional Dutch pancakes for dinner.
Leadership and accomplishments
In addition to presenting their work, many members of the HI team were in leadership positions for the conference. Hasti Seifi, a previous winner of the Best EuroHaptics PhD Thesis Award, was on the selection committee for this year’s contest. Behnam Khojasteh served on the committee that chose the best poster award, avoiding conflicts of interest by evaluating only posters from other teams. Katherine J. Kuchenbecker also chaired the paper session on "Interaction" on the second day.
During the award ceremony, the demo "Hands-On Stand-Alone Teaching Module on Force-Feedback Haptic Devices" by David Gueorguiev, Hasti Seifi, Hannah Elbaggari, and Samantha Melnyk was selected as one of the three finalists for the EuroHaptics 2020 Best Demo Award. David and Hasti were both postdoctoral researchers in HI. Sam did her master’s thesis in the department, and Hannah and Sam are both currently employed by HI on a part-time basis.
To wrap up the conference, PhD student Saekwang Nam and Director Katherine J. Kuchenbecker took home the EuroHaptics 2020 Best Poster Award for their work-in-progress poster titled "Sweat softens the outermost layer of the human finger pad: evidence from simulations and experiments".
Saekwang Nam and Katherine J. Kuchenbecker receiving the best poster award from a member of the award committee.