Faculty Spotlight: Crista Lopes Creates Startup to Reimagine Virtual Conferences

March 10, 2022

Crista Lopes sits at a desk with four screens (including one with an avatar) in the backdrop. She has brown eyes and straight brown hair that falls below her shoulder. She smiles as she looks up toward the camera.

In 2020, the knowledge and expertise of Crista Lopes converged to meet the moment. The professor of software engineering in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) had just co-authored the Communications of the ACM article, “Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon,” so she was already exploring the future of conferences when the global pandemic hit. She quickly pivoted to help draft “Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices” and worked to move the 42nd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) online. Drawing from her wealth of experience as an early developer of OpenSimulator — and her involvement with the OpenSimulator Community Conference (OSCC), which has occurred virtually since 2013 — she worked with Professor Jon Bell of Northeastern University and Professor Benjamin Pierce from the University of Pennsylvania to code a new platform called Clowdr. Their innovative open source project for climate friendly, accessible virtual and hybrid conferences now serves as the basis for a startup company that operates the platform as a service called Midspace. Here, Lopes talks about her experience in developing this new project and bridging the academic-industry divide.

Can you tell us about Midspace?
Midspace is an online conferencing service providing persistent virtual and hybrid spaces tailored to the needs of professional and academic communities. It is based on our open source project Clowdr, which has been designed with two goals in mind: (1) provide accessible digital content, including for people with disabilities; and (2) present an open source solution to virtual conferences that meets the needs of scientific and nonprofit communities.

What are the benefits of virtual conferences?
Virtual conferences deliver massive reductions in the carbon footprint of conferences, particularly large international conferences. Simultaneously, they increase attendance by two to four times due to the reduced cost and ability to attend from work or home, which can also help marginalized groups attend.

In what ways does Midspace foster inclusion and accessibility?
Accessible design is essential to ensure everyone can access the community, presentations and knowledge. We are tackling the most widely known issues, such as presenting in multiple languages, offering real-time closed captioning, and using color contrast and keyboard navigation for people with visual and motor disabilities.

Increasingly, varied digital media and recognition of neurodiversity, particularly in academic fields, pose new accessibility challenges that we are actively researching, working to improve social interactions for people with learning disabilities or with autism, for example. These considerations might take the form of easing social interactions, reducing ambient light, providing multiple ways to view the same information, or simply allowing more user control. We take this very seriously and have a UX person on the team, because we want to make virtual conferences available to as many people as possible.

You mentioned the needs of scientific and nonprofit communities. What are their unique needs?
Midspace can support large industry conferences, of course, just like other virtual event platforms. But scientific and nonprofit conferences tend to have complex programs, with many parallel sessions, and with a large percentage of active participants — that is, participants who are also speakers in some sessions. Midspace embraces this complexity by providing an easy-to-use interface for organizers to set up their complex programs, and by providing an easy-to-use interface for participants to access the virtual rooms and backstage areas for their sessions.

The interface for setting up a conference in Midspace.

For example, the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) used Midspace for its 4S 2021 conference, which had 30 parallel sessions per day, for four days. Of 3,200 attendees, more than 2,300 were also speakers at one or more sessions. Every session was automatically recorded and published within 10 minutes to enable re-watching by attendees. Midspace made this possible without the technical complexity typically associated with virtual conferences. There was no need to send out individual “join here” links to each speaker; it was all automatic.

In addition, at every opportunity, Midspace promotes a sense of being present in a social and knowledge space. It offers features such as a powerful search of the program and participants, opt-in visibility of participants who are co-present in the virtual rooms, emoticons over live video, support for multichannel text chat, and support for text chat that is then persistently associated with program elements. These are just some of the many features that connect people with each other and with the program.

How has your experience with OpenSim informed your development of Midspace?
It definitely informed it a lot because that’s where I come from — highly immersive 3D spaces, where people are represented by avatars and where there’s the illusion of real life. So we’re trying to bring that awareness of social presence to the conference space, making people aware of social cues as much as we can.

One thing that we added that has really increased engagement, following the model of Twitch and some other streaming services, is the ability to have emoticons moving up the screen. As people are giving live talks, the audience can “release” hearts and thumbs-up signs, which is really nice for the speaker to see, letting them know that people are watching. Those are the kinds of things I pay particular attention to – issues about social presence and awareness of other people. I have a lot of experience with this because we’ve been putting on an annual OpenSim conference since 2013.

An animated gif of a screenshot with the heading “Main Stage” at top, showing six people in the virtual room. There are three men in the top row and one man, one woman, and one blank placeholder profile image in the second row. You can see laughing emoticons and heart emoticons moving up the screen, with names below them. The people shown are smiling and laughing.
Audience members releasing heart and laughing emoticons during a conference talk.

From being an early developer of OpenSim to helping develop Midspace, innovation seems to be a core part of everything you do. What’s your main approach?
First, I have an internal feedback loop in my head that always seems to make me work faster and better if I do multiple

things at the same time, instead of just one. Then, the older I get, the more it becomes clear that life is too short to spend my time doing things that I’ve already mastered. I like challenges.

For Women’s History Month, can you talk about a female role model you’ve had along the way?
Professor Gail Murphy, vice president of research and innovation at the University of British Columbia, has been a strong role model for me. She’s one of those people who is good at everything she does, and she’s always kind. I met her when I was finishing my Ph.D., and although she was not part of my thesis committee, she definitely had an impact and gave me a lot of good feedback on my thesis. She really shaped the research that I was doing, and I’ve followed her career and she has followed mine. She’s been a trailblazer, and although she never left academia, she created a very successful company with a former student.

What is your advice for students hoping to build their own product or startup?
Technical people tend to focus on the technology, but companies are about sales or attracting investments. Without that, even the best technology will fail. Also, attracting the right people is essential; a wrong hire can wreck a startup’s morale.

For help with student startups, there are some incubation efforts through UCI Beall Applied Innovation that offer support in terms of accessing a network of investors and people who can help with the nontechnical aspects. That is definitely a valuable resource for UCI students.

How has your experience been working to develop a new product and company and bridge that academia-industry divide?
It has been a wild ride! The company has been able to go through its initial phase without external investment — just with the revenue from the conferences it hosts. We want to grow and work faster now, so Midspace is looking for partners with the right mindset who can help it get to the next level.

One interesting and different characteristic of Midspace is that it is set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in the UK [somewhat similar to a B Corporation in the U.S.], so it has some built-in obligations toward social good and some limitations on shareholders profits. This not only deters investors looking for quick ROIs but hopefully helps us attract investors for whom doing good (in this case, helping scientific and nonprofit communities move their events online) is at least as important as making a profit. We’re looking for people who are interested in social enterprises and in companies that are fulfilling some greater good.

For more information on partnering with Midspace, contact Ed Nutting at ed.nutting@midspace.app.

— Shani Murray