Travelling with a prototype

How to present an IoT prototype in a foreign conference?

As you probably noticed already, I had the honour of making a presentation during the ‘AI & Computer Systems track at the Applied Machine Learning Days (#AMLD2019) in Lausanne.  The conference was great fun, with quality speakers, interesting content and a beautiful venue.

In this blog you’ll be able to read a short recap of what some of my experiences were. I hope you find it an interesting read!

In case you did not remember, we made an early announcement on this matter a while back on our website and socials.

Of course prepping is key. But damn, is it stressy.

It was a stressy but nonetheless a very exciting experience travelling to Lausanne. Not only because I was on the speakers list — I hate to brag but, well, it was not my first time speaking at a conference or event.

There was another reason. I felt stress again because of the fact that I was doing a live demo during my presentation. Well, let me rephrase that, a live demo with my newly cooked portable arcade cabinet.

Kevin Smeyers, Machine Learning expert at ToThePoint making final adjustments to his internet of things (IoT) powered portable Machine Learning Arcade Machine.
Making some final adjustments to the portable Machine Learning arcade.

Why choose to even do a live demo

You’re at your most vulnerable

Doing a demo on a conference or an event is something heroic. The mere fact that you decide to do a live demo shows that you believe it works. You are boldly challenging the demo-gods as you are shouting: “I believe!!!!” 

So, I’m a strong believer in demo’s… both as a spectator and as a speaker. Presenting a live demo implies that the speaker is willing to put his money where his mouth is. It shows he is willing to stand (figuratively) naked for all who’s willing to listen: vulnerable. The presenting speaker shows that he puts his heart and soul into something and is not afraid to fail.

You’re constantly on edge

Although you show you’ve got guts by demoing for a live audience, it still feels as if the spectators are ready to grab stones to throw at you as soon as things are getting pear-shaped.

But there is no need to feel stressed

I point out explicitly to the choice of words that it “feels” like it. The reason for this is because at conferences I visit, people don’t throw stones. Quite the contrary, when live coding is done, people are engaged. The audience tries to follow what is going on. When something doesn’t compile, it’s never a problem: a spectator will raise his hand and help you out on a typo!

In short: People want you to succeed!

So what can go wrong during a live demo?

Well, how do you fly out with homemade electronics?

Because I was bringing a prototype on an airplane with me, I wasn’t quite sure about how to prep for my demo. The airplane factor meant that I was to be challenging the demo gods even further than I have ever done before. Especially in this day and age with increased security measures.

Googling didn’t give me much information on what was the best way to travel with prototype, but I stumbled on this blogpost: How To: Fly With Homemade Electronics.The blogpost was not only the only advice I could find… but it somehow made sense and it was kind of a reassurance to go ahead with my plan.

So, I chose to put my portable arcade in my checked luggage. And wrote a guiding letter, I explained what was in it, labeled the components and added my business card and some links to the conference proving that I’m not bullshitting them.

As I was not the only one flying to Lausanne, I agreed with my travelling companion to spread out some of our luggage so if there was a problem, I wouldn’t run out of undies.

Would I see my prototype back when the eagle landed? Or not?

Yes, my luggage arrived!

It was a great relief to see my luggage appearing on the baggage claim belt. 

What a beautiful sight to see my luggage at the claiming belt.
What a beautiful sight to see my luggage at the claiming belt.

I decided to not check on my prototype immediately but instead travel to the hotel first and then double-check afterwards if everything survived (tempt the demo gods even more, shall we?). So after a train to Lausanne, another train to Renens Gare and an Uber (all vending machines for the metro were broken and it was getting late) we arrived at our hotel.

But it did not arrive in the way I wanted it to be…

I opened up my suitcase, finding my beloved IoT prototype… but there was no relief… there was stress.  The small screen got detached somehow and had a jolly blast bouncing around in the box tearing some wires. 

So I tried to put things in perspective, by fixing it in a huge panicked rush

People travelling frequently know that your suitcase isn’t handled with much care. And there are plenty of accounts where peoples’ luggage arrive mangled. I don’t blame the luggage handlers here, time pressure is immense for them, no doubt. And their only concern is getting the job done asap. So if you can gain some time, by maximising airtime of a suitcase, by all means!

That something could go wrong was calculated. With this in mind, I brought my mini IoT set loaded with screwdrivers with me to fix stuff if needs be.  But I didn’t bring a soldering iron with me, so damage could only be limited to the bare necessities.

Taking a picture with everything in place before boarding brought consolation.

Made some laste fixes to my Arcade Machine
I got everything corrected quite fast, and half an hour later I was sipping my wine and ordering a delicious steak in the hotel’s restaurant.

Ahhh, all is well. Or is it?

Venue wise: it was splendid

Because it was my first time at this conference, I decided to check out the venue the day after.  It was great, very good organisation, great venue.  I was really comforted and could start enjoying the conference.

Demo gods wise: I was still screwed

But, then the day before, I decided to check on my demo.  Something was really wrong. Did I miss something…? Although it was late, I decided to call a colleague who knows this kind of stuff and at the end we got figured out what was wrong…

There was a bad contact somewhere.  No voltage meter, no soldering iron, so fixing it was not an easy feat, but together with the guidance of my colleague we managed to fix it with some tape and stripping wire with my finger nails.

So that’s it then… OR NOT?

The next day it was demo time… but again problem!  They removed the tables! Where do I put my box if there is no table!

I quickly talked to a technician who got me a table. Only problem was that I’m a shorter guy, so behind the desk, people couldn’t even see me. But fortunately, when I give presentations, I’m a “wanderer” … so this was fixed by just doing what I always do, talking and walking!

In the end, it all worked out perfectly! Kind of.

Lessons learned?

Although I had to fix certain things during the demo, I finally got everything working. What a relief! Doing the job of packing everything on the trip home was a breeze. Because you know … been there done that now 😉 My advice: Label everything, get a letter of guidance in there! Wrap it in your luggage, so it doesn’t get damaged! Prepare for the worst. Know the conference venue and setup (which I didn’t, = stressy!)

Kevin Smeyers

Kevin Smeyers is the current Machine Learning architect at ToThePoint Group. Machine Learning and AI is a specialty he picked up again since his days as a computer science student--after having gained various experiences in multiple other IT domains. Passionate about finding the fun side in things, he continued building up a track record in experimenting with a combination of IoT and Machine Learning. Always looking for the algorithm behind the algorithm, it comes as no surprise that Kevin is a speedcubing fan with a personal best of 32 seconds. As an enthusiastic hobbyist with a job, he’s eager to talk about his passion.

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