I wholeheartedly agree that travel diminishes productivity. I felt that when I travel, I could not concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, rather than just tuning into the talks, I switch contexts more often, especially if the talks are not very engaging (a topic of its own). I was trying to learn from and enjoy the conference, at the same time of keeping an usual day-to-day workload — and this is hard to achieve. Most people around in conferences seem to be doing the same thing: juggling between emails and the conference itself. So much so that the provisioning of wireless Internet access at a technical session could be treated as a bug, rather than a feature. Keshav was also precise in pointing out that work does not go away after the trip, it just needs more time to catch up with.
On the other hand, it just turns out that — unlike teenagers — academics are not too keen on communicating over the Internet using more recent technologies than email messages. Very few frequently log into instant messaging systems (such as MSN, google talk, iChat AV, or Skype), or engage in a serious research discussion when they do. It is unlikely that a conference TPC meeting allows TPC members to tune in over Skype or iChat. Very few have research wikis or blogs. I cannot think of a web-based discussion forum to carry out academic discussions, or simply to publish CFPs. Well, it is probably because most are busy traveling — and working on the actual research.
If we progress beyond emails for research interactions, then at the very least TPC meetings can be held over the Internet, saving a trip or two every year! Is immature technology the root of the problem, when video conferencing has to go through insufficient bandwidth, NATs and firewalls? Or should we be more adventurous and use networks to do research in networking, distributed systems to do research in distributed systems, and multimedia to do research in multimedia?
It has always been my dream to be able to watch on-demand archived webcast of academic lectures and conference presentations, and to appreciate their depth and inspiration. Unfortunately, it appears that we are not there just yet. Would academic work in the area of multimedia systems and networking help us to achieve such a vision?
During the years of research since I was a graduate student at UIUC, I have always had questions on the impact of academic papers in the real world, which seems to be dominated by Microsoft (with its proprietary Windows Media Video), RealNetworks, and Apple Quicktime. The myriad of protocols (e.g., RTP, RTSP, RTCP, SIP, H.323) and codecs (e.g., MPEG2, MPEG4, H.264) seems to be dazzling, but I have not seen many promising academic proposals been deployed to real-world use, such as layered coding and multiple description coding. For example, papers as recent as SIGCOMM 2006 (titled Enabling Contribution Awareness in an Overlay Broadcasting System) still propose to use layered MDC to provide differentiated qualities to different peers in overlay broadcasting, while successful codecs of layered coding and MDC — or at least open source ones — are nowhere in sight.
No all academic proposals are shelved or archived, of course. I have had the deepest respect for at least two pieces of work from academia. First, Professor Henning Schulzrinne‘s work on RTP, RTSP and SIP. They have not only become industry standards, adopted by the Apple Darwin Streaming Server (which is open source), but also embraced the design principles of simplicity, which I cherish.
Second, Professor Larry Rowe‘s recent work on lecture webcasting has captured my interests about a year ago. Professor Rowe has had a technical report documenting his experiences webcasting NOSSDAV 2005 presentations, with both positive and negative lessons learned. Since then, he has had even more engaging stories (in the form similar to modern blogs but presented as static web pages) about ongoing challenges with Quicktime upgrades and video qualities at a high bit rate (1200 Kbps).
Professor Rowe preferred the Darwin Quicktime streaming server since it is open source and uses open standards such as RTP and RTSP, but then believed that even the Quicktime streaming technology was still immature to be used for a large digital library. I enjoyed reading the paper since I think it was impartial and involved a large amount of work towards bridging academia and practice (at least bringing conference talks to the web!), but unfortunately the paper was not published at any prestigious conferences or journals.
I am very curious to see if, in the next five years, I could stream a large number of archived webcasts of lectures and talks to my office desktop. Youtube’s success has made a point that even poor-quality ones with out-of-sync audio may be better than nothing. And if lecture webcasts do become a reality, would that be the result of the industrial push of trendy technologies — such as the iTunes U or video podcasts, or the outcome of papers in leading conferences and transactions?
Without much fanfare, we just switched to our new web site, powered by WordPress, and with the objective of making the site more dynamic, with more frequent updates and more interesting content. The site is designed to be a combination of weblogs and static web pages: weblogs for posts by team members in a particular context of time, and web pages for content that spans a longer period.
Though that may be the official line, I somehow feel that the weblog section may eventually just become my personal blog dedicated to research, while the static web pages would include the list of publications for download. We will see how it works out, but at least I realized one thing a long time ago: there is no way a web site can be perfect. I would rather be in pursuit of perfection one post (or one paper) at a time.