The Biggest Robotics Research Conference Is Now More Accessible Than Ever

iCub humanoid robot shakes hand with a person.
Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

By: Evan Ackerman and Erico Guizzo

If it wasn’t for COVID-19, we’d probably be in Paris right now, enjoying the beautiful weather, stuffing ourselves with pastries, and getting ready for another amazing edition of the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the world’s largest robotics research gathering. We’re not doing any of that, of course. Personally, I’ve barely left my house since March, and the in-person ICRA conference in Paris was quite sensibly cancelled a while ago.

The good news, however, is that ICRA is now a virtual conference instead, and the reason that it’s good news (and not just some sad pandemic-y compromise) is that the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS) and the ICRA conference committees have put in an astonishing amount of work in a very short period of time to bring the entire conference online in a way that actually seems like it might work out pretty well for everyone.

Here’s the deal with ICRA 2020, presented in a friendly Q&A format:

Is ICRA still happening?

It’s happening. All of it. Online.

Can I come?

Of course! You can be(ish) there, because everyone is invited, yay!

Do I have to register? How much does it cost?

You do have to register, but it’s reasonably priced: €25 for students, €100 for non-student IEEE members, €150 for everyone else. No hotel rooms, no plane tickets, no having to hang on to all your receipts and then beg for reimbursement later. Phew!

When does it start and end?

ICRA kicks off Sunday, May 31, and it runs until June 15, although online access to everything will be available through August 31st so you don’t have to suffer through everything over just a couple of days like we all usually do.

Great! How do I watch the opening ceremony, plenaries, keynotes, and panel discussions?

You’ll be able to watch these events live on IEEE.tv starting at 1 p.m. UTC. 

Ugh, 1 p.m. UTC is horrible because I live in Asia/America/Antarctica/the Moon. Does that mean I’m going to miss out on things?

You’ll miss the live online Q&A for the plenaries, but otherwise, everything will be recorded and made available on IEEE.tv.

Where can I find a detailed schedule of all that stuff?

The conference website (http://icra2020.org) has everything you need—dates, times, and links, for all of the live events. And remember, you’ve got a couple months to catch up if you can’t see something live, and all the paper presentations have been pre-recorded and can be accessed at any time.

Are there still going to be talks from paper authors somehow, or do I just have to slog through 1,516 papers on my own?

This is maybe the best part! The vast majority of papers will be presented by authors via pre-recorded 5- to 10-minute videos that you can watch on-demand! No more duodecuple-booking yourself (which I have totally done)! No more sprinting between sessions that are as far away from each other as possible for some reason! And no more trying to cram yourself into a tiny room packed with a number of roboticists that violates both the minimum of personal comfort and the fire code. There will also be a special page with all papers of award finalists.

Okay but If the paper presentations are pre-recorded, how do I ask a question?

Also maybe the best part! Rather than having to fight off the rest of the session audience to ask a question, or creepily hang around after the session to intercept the speaker on their way out the door, each paper comes with its very own Slack channel where you can ask a question and the author can (hopefully) get back to you as soon as they get a chance. It’s asynchronous, but you can also use the Slack channel to set up a time to talk with the author directly, share assets, and so forth. More details:

Each presentation will be hosted on its own page containing the abstract, links to online videos and chat sessions, the full paper, authors’ profiles, on-demand videos, author-uploaded poster and/or slides, author-typed additional information, and the ICRA-Digest summary of their work. Each attendee will be given a professional page containing their contributions to the current conference as well as past events. You can also choose to share contact details, a short bio, and a resume.

Slack?

It’s like a chat room that can also do a bunch of other stuff. When you register for ICRA, you’ll get login details for the ICRA Slack channel and all of the sub-channels for presentations and papers and so on.

What about workshops and tutorials?

Most workshops and tutorials will happen online, and you don’t even need to register for them. They’re a little less structured than the rest of the conference, happening on different days and at a wide variety of times. Each has its own dedicated Slack channel, but you’ll want to have a look at the website for the workshop you’re interested in to see what their specific plan is.

I need a job!

The Access to Talent Program is still taking place; you can upload your résumé and contact info and companies will be able to contact you.

What about the exhibition?

We’re told that “a virtual exhibition with industrial partners and sponsors will be hosted on InfoVaya, so that attendees can get connected with applied research and the latest off-the-shelf technologies.” It’s not exactly getting to play with robots, but it’s something.

That would be great if only I knew what InfoVaya was!

InfoVaya is a sort of website/app thingy that acts as an online conference proceedings. ICRA and IROS both started using it back in 2017. When you register for ICRA, you’ll get login details for InfoVaya. If you prefer to use old-school Papercept, you’ll get login details for that, too. 

What about all the other stuff?

Not everything can happen online, but a lot of surprising things still are. There’s still the awards ceremony and a RAS Town Hall, with a live panel. The Women in Engineering and Young Professionals lunches are now online mentoring and networking events. Lunch with Leaders is online too, and you’ll be able to sign up for an informal one-on-one chat with industry and academic leaders. There’s also a new robot trivia contest that I won’t enter because I’m sure I’d win, as well as a new Student Video Challenge that looks like it’s going to be awesome.


As promising (and necessary) as this new format is, we’re still going to miss a lot of things about in-person ICRA, because there are all kinds of things that just don’t happen online. There’s sitting through a talk that you were sure was going to be boring based on the title, but turned out to be the coolest thing ever. There’s listening to someone else ask a question that’s way more interesting than the question you were going to ask. There’s running into people during coffee breaks who you haven’t seen in years and hearing about what they’ve been up to. There’s playing with other people’s robots that you definitely can’t afford. There’s the mixing of folks in academia and industry that leads to all kinds of interesting and weird things happening later on. And there’s a heck of a lot more—virtual ICRA isn’t going to be able to replace all of that. 

But that’s okay. There are lots more ICRAs to look forward to. And we’re hoping that at least some of this extra accessibility will carry over into future robotics conferences to make it easier for folks to participate who can’t be there in person, whether or not there’s a pandemic on.

If you want to join other amazing roboticists for what promises to be the biggest and longest virtual robotics event ever, registration is open.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 28 May 2020.