January 27, 2017

Attending an MPEG meeting as an academic researcher

I recently attended an MPEG meeting for the first time. I am now used to attending academic conferences (for the best and the worst) but I had never attended a meeting of a standardization group before. Overall, my feedback is very positive and I will probably embrace a bit more the standard circus in the future (hopefully I will not wait forty years before attending another standard meeting).

I especially appreciate the commitment of researchers during the MPEG sessions. The attendees are engaged into a "technical/scientific conversation" with the researcher who presents his contribution. It is in no way comparable to the experience of most academic talks. I identified some of the key differences between a meeting group at MPEG and a standard session in an academic event:
  • The scope of a meeting group is very narrow. For example, I attended the meeting of the ad-hoc group in charge of discussing projections of 360° videos into 2D maps. Every attendee had good reasons to attend this meeting in particular, so free riders were minority. In an academic conference, the Program Chairs tries to schedule the presentations so that papers sharing a similar topic are gathered, but the objectives of these academic papers are often quite different. Instead the contributions during a standard session share the same objectives, which inevitably invite researchers who are experts in the domain to argue about the pros and cons of every contribution, including their owns.
  • The presentation is not the end, it is the beginning of something wider, which is to eventually contribute to a common (un-authored) document. The chairman is in charge of writing a consensual document after the meeting and a presenter aims at convincing attendees that his contribution is worth being included in this document without reserve. In an academic conference, the motivation of the presenter is to be present so that an accepted paper is not withdrawn from the digital library due to no-show.
  • When a presenter is invited to introduce his contributions, it is no showtime. He usually stays at his seat and he scrolls over the document that every attendee has previously opened (most people had a look at the contributions beforehand). There is no talk, no slides, no formalism. Only the presenter, his contribution, and engaged attendees. The debate related to a contribution can be two-minutes long or one hour-long. I found it much more lively than well-formatted slide-based talks.
I also appreciate this feeling of being useful as a "public scientist" in a population that is mostly comprised of private researchers. A scientist has various ways to disseminate the knowledge he is supposed to produce with respect to his public funding and salary. Academic conference is the most common way. Some scientists create start-ups. Some scientists develop strong ties with companies and spend most of their energy collaborating in projects. Good reasons to disseminate in standard meetings include:
  • The contribution from a public academic researcher is (usually) not driven by mercantile private interests. We are supposed to provide something that is closer to The Scientific Truth than what other researchers from competing companies can claim. I understand that one of the missions of a public researcher attending a standard meeting is to ensure that what will eventually become a widely used standard is not an aggregation of patented technologies but rather a scientifically solid and open solution.
  • Every scientist hopes that the fruit of his research will be eventually exploited, whether indirectly to contribute to a better knowledge or directly by integration into an object that is useful to the society. In applied research topics such as computer science, the academic conferences are not necessarily the best way to convey ideas to the companies that are in capacity to exploit a scientific result. The academic world is mostly fuzzy and closed. A standard group appears as a direct way to enable the exploitation of scientific ideas, without restriction.
Of course, the experience of attending an MPEG meeting also includes annoyances: A lot of time is spent at orchestrating the various standard sub-groups, some guys can ruin a whole meeting by interfering with every presenter, the circus is full of jargon and bizarre usages, which prevent a newcomer to join, political and business games exist ... but the advantages are also numerous (including but not restricted to the above). Overall, the balance is in my opinion positive.

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