As the pandemic continues to put the kibosh on industry conferences, event organizers are hunting for new ways to engage their audiences online. Immersive virtual reality (VR) events are now popping up with increased regularity as more people experiment with the format. But are conferences in virtual reality going to be a mainstay or is it just a novelty?
Virtual reality growth
Virtual Reality is growing by leaps and bounds…literally. Fueled mostly by the gaming industry, last year over 7 million virtual reality headsets were shipped in the US according to Statistica. That number is expected to triple to 20.5 million headsets by the end of 2021.
There are currently over 170 million VR users worldwide and in the US at least 52 million people are expected to use VR at least once a month this year. That’s an increase of almost 10 million people from 2019.
A successful VR conferences held recently was the Educators in VR Summit. It was held using Microsoft’s AltSpace VR platform. 170 speakers presented sessions over 6 days to 2,000+ attendees.
In a conversation with Forbes, Katie Kelly, Program Owner at Altspace VR had this to say about the event: “The Educators in VR summit was an amazing community-driven effort to showcase what that could look like. I did a rough estimate and factoring in the travel time and CO2e estimates that would have been spent. This summit took about 9 thousand cars off the road for the week of the summit and saved attendees around 5 million miles of travel. So whether we’re combating a global outbreak, climate change or remote work – there’s a lot that AltspaceVR and other VR platforms can do to help.”
It’s fitting that the event organizers of this educational event published a thorough lessons-learned article that included the following insights:
- It takes a village to organize and execute a VR conference (same as an in-person one)
- Expect a mixture of audience technology (2D, cell phone, true VR)
- Be less restrictive with event spaces in VR, not everything has to look like a lecture hall
- People attend social events not just social spaces (same as an in-person event)
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Webster
One of the most outspoken advocates for the use of VR is Dr. Charles Webster (aka “Chuck”, aka @wareFLO). Chuck is an active member of the HITMC Community and anyone who has met him, knows how passionate he is about new technologies (3D printing, personalized electronic badges and now Virtual Reality).
As our resident VR expert, I asked him a few questions to better understand the potential for this form of online gathering.
What can someone expect when joining an event or conference in Virtual Reality?
Expect to feel transported to a different place and time. Putting on a VR headset and attending a social VR event is like stepping into the Star Trek Enterprise transporter and being teleported to some other place in the imaginable universe to hang out with other people wearing VR headsets who have been similarly transported.
Is there anything about a VR event that is the same as an in-person event?
You know how when you arrive a bit early for a meetup or a conference and you see other folks standing around awkwardly but then they screw up the courage to introduce themselves and the conversation becomes animated and then you feel like best friends? That’s what’s the same. Social VR-based conferencing is more similar to face-to-face in-real-life conferencing than any other virtual conferencing technology, including Zoom or Second Life-like experiences.
What is different?
Social VR is the illusion an illusion is an illusion! (I coined this!) But it’s still an illusion… Let’s unpack this. VR is such a compelling illusion (that you are physically present with others in a 3D space) that even though you intellectually KNOW you are not really physically present together, you emotionally and physically BELIEVE you really are physically and emotionally present together. However, if you automatically try to shake hands or even hug, you’ll be reminded of the illusion when your hand passes through their hand or hugs pass through each other. Also, that delicious-looking pastry or glass of wine? Sorry! You’ll have to bring your own to these events.
Do I have to have a VR goggles/headset in order to participate in a VR event?
Attending a social VR event without a VR headset is possible but not even a tenth as fun. Most social VR platforms have non-VR clients for one or more desktop operating systems or one or more mobile devices. Yes, you can hear what’s going on and chat back, but you might as well be using Skype or Zoom. Hear of “Zoom Fatigue?” Social VR has the opposite problem, time flies until someone literally taps you on the shoulder to remind you of pending real-world engagements and responsibilities. I currently recommend a $400 Oculus Quest headset. Think about it this way: as more conferences go virtual, the Quest is less expensive than travel and lodging. Plus, registration for virtual counterparts of canceled physical conferences tends to be much less expensive, or even free via vendor sponsorships.
What is the biggest myth about VR events that you would like to dispel?
The biggest myth about VR events is the relationship between the realism of your social VR avatar and the quality of your experience. I often tweet selfies and videos from social VR events. Yes, we do look like low-resolution cartoons. However, while wearing a VR headset, you are looking out through the eyes of one of those avatars. You feel as if you really are that avatar. If someone throws a snowball at you, you automatically duck. When you have an intimate and confessional conversation with another cartoon avatar, you forget what each other looks like, and only care about the content of their character, just as in real life!
To help get started with VR, Chuck suggests following two twitter accounts:
In terms of VR platforms, Chuck recommends either Microsoft’s AltspaceVR or Hubs Mozilla. “AltspaceVR has somewhat higher quality 3d spaces and avatars, plus excellent event management and a robust social graph (meaning I have lots-and-lots of friends there),” said Chuck. “Depending on whether you create your own 3D world or use an optimized AltspaceVR world, there’s a max of 30 to 80 users within a single world. AltspaceVR also has Front Row, which allows any number of users to watch and interact with multiple users on a central stage. Hubs has a limit of a couple of dozen users in a single space, but since it’s easy to stream video into a world, a workaround is to have multiple copies of a world and stream video into each world. Hubs biggest advantage is that it works in a browser. Just click a link in a tweet and you’re social, VR style!”
Will VR events replace in-person ones? It’s hard to see that happening (excuse the pun). However with large gatherings not expected to make a return until 2021, people are actively seeking online alternatives that offer experiences that come as close as possible to the visual/social aspects of in-person events. Virtual Reality is a format that is gaining popularity and worth keeping an eye on (okay maybe 2 eyes).