VR events: for engagement and presence

A review of what goes on at such events

HTC China president, Alvin Graylin, giving a keynote speech in his avatar at the world's first VR conference, V²EC. Credit: HTC China

WORLDWIDE - Whilst social distancing becomes the norm, meeting technologies that help remove physical obstacles between people to offer hybrid, off- and online events, will quickly become an essential technology. Those who know how to embrace this technology and apply it effectively stand to gain in these fast-changing times.

One such group of 2,000 delegates from 55 countries which is most comfortable to apply such technology is none other than the Virtual Reality (VR) experts who attended the world's first VR conference, V²EC, in March 2020. These delegates used their avatars to communicate with each other during the conference.

Potential in the meetings industry
One of the participants, Mr Erik Hartley, VR enthusiast and YouTube content creator from San Francisco Bay Area, believes that such technology has a vast potential in the meetings industry.

He said: "Something that virtual reality and augmented reality applications can add to events is a sense of presence. Web conference calls and gatherings don't give that same level of presence. I recently attended a couple of conferences using Virtual Reality applications. In one conference, I was able to create an avatar that by submitting a head shot photo, I was able to build a recognisable avatar of myself.  

"I could recognise other friends and colleagues at the event and interact with them in that virtual environment. We were able to walk away from the main presentation and have small networking meetings while in that virtual space, just like you could at a real conference.  

"Doing that strictly in a web-based conference call would be cumbersome and requires breakout calls that could be disruptive to other participants. In VR, it felt like natural interaction we would have had at an actual in-person conference."

V²EC annual VR conference
V²EC, an annual VR conference held by a VR equipment producer, HTC, was supposed to be in China but was transformed into a VR event this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Conference attendants logged on by wearing VR equipment from home or work.

Participants were able to interrupt during a speech, ask questions or engage in a debate. Speakers "brought attendants" who were in their avatars, on to the stage and asked questions related to their speeches. As the avatars moved around the virtual space, attendants were able to engage in conversations, speeches and discussions.

Mr Hartley added: "I think adding more virtual and augmented reality options would really help to integrate that sense of presence and help get more business and social networking mixed in with already planned agendas."

He said that Spaces, a virtual reality application, allows users to join web-based conference calls from within VR, adding one's own avatar and a set of tools such as a white board within the virtual space that can be shared with other users who are viewing on a standard web conference platform outside of VR.

"I absolutely think that more conferences, press events and expos will be continuing to add online components as they can reach a much broader audience that way. Direct, personal audience engagement is further accented by using immersive tools like virtual reality and augmented reality," said Mr Hartley.

VR events allow a greater sense of immersion, presence, and the ability to "walk away" from the main presentation and network. However, the industry's low adoption of VR equipment, and a shortage of VR equipment, compounded by the fact that VR environments have not yet been scaled up for large audiences, are barriers to entry.  

Mr Hartley cited an example: "In one of the conferences that I recently attended via virtual reality, I had to leave and return to multiple 'meeting rooms' to be able to find one where I was able to view the main speaker and presentation.  

"This was a result of bandwidth challenges across the VR application. As more attendees joined, the server couldn't keep up with simultaneously broadcasting the event to the multiple instances.  

"In order for these presentations to be more impactful and effective, these VR spaces will need to be able to deal with those challenges and mitigate them."

Other challenges involving VR conferences include the lack of eye contact with speakers, and reading participants' body language, tone and emotions to better understand the messages they are trying to convey.

Whilst the adoption of such technologies is still evolving and improving, the pandemic will, perhaps, trigger a shift towards the serious pursuit and adoption of such technologies in the MICE industry as travel remains illusive and uncertain in the foreseeable future.

Some VR spaces which can be used by meeting planners:
•    Engage (https://engagevr.io/) which recently hosted the HTC Vive Ecosystem Conference virtually and received a large investment from HTC for those efforts.
•    Altspace (https://altvr.com/) which is owned by Microsoft and has both virtual reality and web-based portals available. They have hosted large gatherings, including a recent Educators in VR summit. They also recently published a blog with further support related to VR conferences at https://altvr.com/hosting-conferences-in-altspacevr/
•    VRChat (https://vrchat.com/) gives users the ability to host private or public events again either within VR or accessible via web-based portals. They have hosted conferences including a fan expo for the video game, Elite: Dangerous, and an event for users to buy custom avatars and props for use in VR.