Lessons Learned from Hosting a VR Conference

Behind the Scenes - 2020 Educators in VR International Conference virtual conference - collage

We are still gathering feedback and data about our incredibly successful 2020 Educators in VR International Summit, February 17-22, 2020. We just held a Behind the Scenes of the International Summit workshop in AltspaceVR, and wanted to present some of our information and lessons learned.

A Little History

Educators in VR begin in November 2018 with the idea of bringing together educators and learners from within the VR community to share and discuss integrating VR into education. What was expected to be a meetup of 20-30 people became a 180 participants event. We began with monthly meetups, but the demand and interest was stunning, so we upped it to once a week workshops that continue to fill over a year later.

The topics and guest speakers have been incredible, covering a wide variety of industries and specialties from language learning to integrating AR into book publishing.

Behind the Scenes - History of Educators in VR virtual events

Within a short time, passionate educators, learners, and researchers asked it they could start their own groups under the Educators in VR umbrella, focusing on their specialty. Currently, we have eight such team projects, with more on the way. These team projects host events with speakers and topics, and are building communities in and of themselves, connecting like minds across borders. Most of the action happens on our Educators in VR Discord group, though some are also connecting on our Facebook group. You may check out the events in AltspaceVR on our Educators in VR AltspaceVR channel and subscribe to be notified of upcoming events.

At the beginning of 2019, co-founders Daniel Dyboski-Bryant, and myself, Lorelle VanFossen, discussed ideas for where we wanted to go in the future, and top of the list was a virtual conference. I wanted a 3-4 days conference, and Daniel laughed and said, “Why don’t we make it a week-long conference?” We compromised on 6 days, and the idea was born for the Educators in VR International Summit.

The idea of the International Summit was to be a proof-of-concept. Could we do it? Could we really create an all virtual, 24-hour, 6 day global conference and:

  • Would speakers want to present about VR in VR?
  • Who would show up for a conference in VR about VR?

Both solid questions, and of course, we quickly expanded VR to all the XR technologies. The excitement and interest of AWE 2019 was our first inclination that this was not just possible but feasible as we presented virtual workshops to people around the world from “within” the AWE side conferences. We kept experimenting at other conferences, adding a virtual component to in-person conferences, and eventually decided that February 2020 would be the date for taking the concept out of the idea box and proving we could actually do this.

We did. And more is coming. Stay tuned.

2020 Educators in VR International Summit Goals

Our original goals were:

  • Feature 40-60 speakers over 6 days.
  • Include multiple virtual social and educational platforms.
  • Recruit speakers from across the globe representing the diversity of the virtual technology industries.
  • Invite sponsors and partners to join us in support of this ground-breaking virtual conference.
  • Use sponsor and GoFundMe funding to ensure the “tickets” were free and the event was open to the general public.
  • Produce this event with as few expenses as possible, just to see how inexpensive we could make it.
  • Do all of this with about 10 volunteers.

Due to some lovely life and technical issues beyond our control, the speaker forms went out near the beginning of December with a January 3 deadline, the worst time to invite speakers to take time out of their busy work, family, and holiday schedule and fill out a long application.

By the day after Christmas, we had 70 entries. By January 3, we had almost 150. We extended the call for speakers a little longer until we were at 170 and stopped.

Daniel, myself, and Donna McTaggart, our champion volunteer Summit Coordinator and Manager, discussed this and shared this thought: Since this was a virtual conference, and virtual is infinite, unlike a real life conference with logistical limits, why not include as many speakers as possible across the six days?

Admittedly, this was a bit crazy as we’ve learned that virtual reality definitely has some finite limits, but we threw everything we had into this, talked to as many platforms as possible, and narrowed down our partner platforms to six: AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium Space.

When we raised the number of speakers, we quickly realized that we needed many more volunteers to support them and the conference in general.

Here are the results and our adjusted goals.

  • 170 speakers in 150+ events over 6 days.
  • Included multiple platforms, each hosting multiple events on a variety of subjects including tours and introductory workshops.
  • Recruited speakers from around the globe representing so much of the diversity of virtual technologies from web apps to deep research to pedagogy and assessments to therapy and everything in between.
  • Invited sponsors and partners and had several companies step up as sponsors and entered into partnerships with Virtual World Society and Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN), with a few others in process, connecting Educators in VR and its members with the greater community of associations supporting XR.
  • Expenses were about USD $300 as so many people helped out, donated their time, energy, and passion to make this possible.
  • About 75 volunteers who gave so much of themselves and pushed themselves out of their comfort zones to help support this event and Educators in VR.

Behind the Scenes - Andy Fidel - Speaker Badges for virtual conference

A few special highlights include the amazing work and donation of Andy Fidel of VRScout and her own marketing freelancing company. While traveling around the world, she worked from hotels, back seats of cars, and airports to bring us the amazing speaker cards for each of our speakers, and the fun #summitselfie project on Twitter, encouraging people to take a picture of themselves in the real world (or VR) enjoying the Summit. As this was an entirely virtual conference, this helped us see how people were connecting in the real world to our conference in the virtual world.

Images are still coming in and we hope to have a huge quilt of pictures from around the world as people share their #summitselfie.

The International Summit Event Spaces

Flags created by Engage for the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit.We knew from the beginning that we wanted the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit to be held across multiple virtual platforms, and we are so appreciative of their support and help to make the Summit a success. They created special event spaces and helped recruit speakers to their platforms as well as adding our speakers to their platforms.

Alvin Wang Graylin of HTC Vive speaking in Engage at the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit.As our home-base is currently AltspaceVR, we worked with our Educators in VR team and the AltspaceVR events team to ensure our event spaces would be safe and high performance to accommodate a variety of devices. While other virtual social and event platforms are usually limited to 20-50 attendees, AltspaceVR could be easily coaxed to larger room numbers and features the Front Row tool that allows for the mirroring of events spaces, allowing hundreds to thousands of attendees to view the experience from separate identical event spaces, improving overall user and device performance. Accordingly, we hosted the majority of our events in AltspaceVR.

Behind the Scenes - Event and Social works and spaces virtual conference

Our event space goals were:

  • To feature a large screen for improved visibility and readability.
  • Accommodate as many people as possible without loss of performance.
  • Have enough room for social interaction and networking with the speaker and the participants.

In reality, as VR social and educational spaces are still in their infancy in many ways, this is what challenged us:

  • A large screen perfect for our needs.
  • The ability to accommodate mobile users changed our priorities and capabilities to ensure fairly democratic inclusion of speakers and participants on as many virtual devices as possible as well as in 2D or Desktop versions.
  • A need to prevent distractions so speakers and attendees, many very new to VR social and event platforms, would not be distracted by those taking advantage of distraction opportunities like jumping up and down off the rafters or trying to get under the bleacher seats or on the stage.
  • The event space template that allowed us the maximum participants was small and lousy for social interaction as it didn’t allow space for people to move off in a distance and chat.

With some creative thinking of myself and Mark Savage, an excellent world builder in AltspaceVR using Unity and other world building tools, we outlined the flow of attendees as well as speakers and volunteers through each event, trying to meet our original goals. In the end, we came up with a system we highly recommend to others considering virtual meetings and conferences facing similar challenges. In addition to the event space, Mark developed a modern estate world with plenty of room to move around in a serene environment, allowing for easy conversations and social exchange. We used this modern estate world for multiple purposes.

  1. Speakers and volunteers coming into AltspaceVR were to check-in with the volunteers in what we called the “VIP Lounge,” a meeting hangout version of the modern estate world. A volunteer would stand at the desk like a concierge and greet people and help them check-in and head to their events.
  2. The event space featured a large screen and auditorium seating that allowed good viewing from just about everywhere.
  3. At the end of the event, if the speaker was still engaged with the audience, they were encouraged to head out back outside the event venue to where there was a teleporter to the “Social Space” to continue to conversation.
  4. The modern estate was modified with a small platform and bench seating area to allow the speaker to resume center stage, so to speak, and others could naturally move off to their corners for more private discussions.

Mark and I and a couple of other volunteers added “distracting proofing” elements to block the rafters and prohibit teleporting on the stage and under the seats. As a result, the event had few physical distractions and the audience was well-behaved, helping all of us relax and focus on the more important elements of the conference.

Behind the Scenes - Educators in VR International Summit custom event space virtual conference

It worked very well and we will likely use this flow pattern in the future, allowing us to meet all our goals, until we can find a world design that answers all our challenges.

The events in the other social and educational platforms had only a few problems with access and device issues, and sailed through the International Summit beautifully. We look forward to the future when audience numbers do not restrict use of any social or educational platform, giving us the ability to move freely between them and attend larger events no matter where they are held.

Communication and Back Channeling

In a real-world conference, the staff and crew stay in contact through walkie-talkies or cell phones. We didn’t have those luxuries in virtual reality, but we have Discord, the powerful free voice and text chat for gamers and everyone. I describe it to newcomers as an improved forum program or Facebook but better and simpler.

Discord allows groups to set up a server as a community with individual channels, allowing users to discuss like topics with some order, to have private chat areas, and voice chat publicly or privately. You also have the ability to set up direct messages and voice chats with individuals or groups. Discord text and voice chat may also be layered over a VR device interface, allowing the user to chat or use voice controls while in virtual platforms and worlds and still stay connected. We made use of all those features and more.

E:\Documents\Clients\Educators in VR\2020 International Summit\Behind_the_Scenes_-_Discord_Communication.png

We set up a private area for speakers and volunteers allowing us to help them directly without clogging up the rest of our Discord group. We set up a voice chat and used it throughout the event to quickly inform each other of a speaker or volunteer coming in and needing help or requesting additional help at an event, coordinating film and live streaming crews, and problem-solving at high speed. Discord allowed us to not only work multiple events at the same time but multiple platforms.

During the closing ceremonies, Daniel and others were celebrating in Somnium Space while the main closing ceremonies were in AltspaceVR. Daniel live streamed the event in AltspaceVR, but his avatar (and body, so to speak) were in Somnium Space while I was doing the closing keynote in AltspaceVR. He could see the live stream and talk to me through Discord as we timed the switch of the slides to the live stream from Somnium Space, crossing the virtual divide instantly. The timing was critical, and the voice chat helped us make that possible.

Real life or virtual event, consider adding Discord to your event toolbox.

Managing the Volunteers and Speakers

Speakers rehearse with slides in the Educators in VR International Summit practice spaces.We will never tire of thanking our amazing crew of volunteers who stepped up and out of their way to support Educators in VR and the International Summit. They went above and beyond and out of their comfort zones to ensure each speaker was assisted and prepped for their event, other volunteers were helped and trained, and everything moved smoothly throughout the entire event.

Remember those Team Projects? We asked our Team Project Leaders to step up and take on speakers for each of their related topics. We had nine track leaders for 11 speaker tracks, with several track leaders taking on the extra tracks. They communicated with their group of speakers, helped train and prepare them for presenting in VR, and helped them every step of the way. What an amazing networking opportunity, and what a great gift to all of us.

There were six Volunteer Leaders under the leadership of Karen Myers and Margie Dimond who shared tasks and kept the ~75 volunteers and all the details going throughout. They assisted with training and prep, coordination, scheduling, and so many tasks and event management needs, it left the rest of us dizzy with how much they did.

Some of the tasks and responsibilities were huge. For instance, Michael Zhang was asked at last minute to assist with the slide links. We acknowledge that we thought this process would be easier. We’d arranged for the speakers to submit links to the track leaders, but soon we had slide links emailed to us through several email accounts, posted on Discord, and passed onto the track leaders – they were everywhere. Michael took on the task of collecting them and contacting speakers who hadn’t submitted yet, and ensuring we had a list of slide URLs for each speaker and each event ready to pass onto the event host or track leader helping with the event quickly and easily. That was a huge project and we are so grateful for the way Michael took it and made it his own.

Another challenge was the videos and live streams. We just didn’t have enough volunteers prepared to take on what was believed to be a complicated task. At last minute, we put out a call to our community and volunteers jumped on tutorials and read through our video guides and stepped up.

Video embedded in Slide show for Educators in VR International Summit.Dealing with crowd-sourced videos was a huge task and Steve Lewis and the volunteer team weren’t quite ready for the enthusiasm, even to the point where we had multiple camera bots filming in a single event.

We learned something very important that hadn’t been considered. To accommodate all the extra video footage, I paid for extra storage on our shared Educators in VR Google Drive. When filmers reported storage issue errors that there wasn’t enough storage, asking them to pay for more, we investigated and found that in order to upload a large file, the file is stored on your Google Drive storage and linked to the shared storage. We couldn’t find a way around this until Steve Lewis contacted Eric White at DriveCreative.net, a video production company that stepped up to help us out with recommendations to use pCloud for uploading video storage.

The team is currently in the process of rounding up all the crowd-sourced video (if you haven’t uploaded yours, please contact us right away on Discord.) and processing it for upload to our Educators in VR YouTube channel.

So many tasks and responsibilities, let’s define them.

  • Leadership: We needed people with leadership abilities and familiarity with virtual events and platforms to help with project and people management.
  • Event Moderation: Every event needed one to eight moderators for crowd control, allowing the speakers and event hosts to focus on the presentation and not on dealing with a few distractions.
  • Event Hosts: Event hosts helped the speaker set up their event and introduce them, if necessary, and managed the Q&A when they were ready. Many controlled the slides so the speaker could put all their focus and energy into presenting and not have to learn new tools or be distracted. Track leaders and their team members helped to host most of their speakers’ events, but we had backup event hosts covering as well, ensuring that someone familiar with event hosting on that platform would be available to step in if the speaker or the event host crashed, ran out of battery, lost power, or struggled with anything.
  • Room Hosts: Room hosts supported and moderated the VIP Lounge and the Social Space, helping speakers, volunteers, and participants find their way around and connect with others.
  • Film/Live Stream: As mentioned, the community stepped up to help us record as many of the events as possible, and continue to work on ensuring the presentations were preserved and shared on our YouTube channel as well as elsewhere.
  • Administrative Volunteers: We had a variety of administrative needs with spreadsheets, scheduling, and general office style projects, and many pitched in with little or no event or VR experience to help us pull this all together.

Speaker 101 training with Lorelle VanFossen for the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit.We offered a wide range of training opportunities and experiences for both speakers and volunteers.

  • Eight Speaker 101 events over 4 weeks preparing speakers to present in VR.
  • Three 24-hr private event spaces for practice and rehearsals open several weeks before the event and throughout.
  • Track-only private speaker practice and rehearsal sessions with the track leaders and members helping the speakers.
  • All speaker group practices spread across the 3 private event spaces with many volunteers assisting the speakers.
  • Four volunteer training sessions and many smaller private sessions to help volunteers learn how to moderate, host, manage slides, use 2D as a backup, and film and live stream the events.

Going forward, Educators in VR will be presenting training and support sessions for all the various tasks associated with event hosting for another International Summit and other event-based activities, encouraging others to create and support their own educational events, meetups, and conferences.

Spreadsheets and Calendars, Oh My!

Behind the Scenes - Educators in VR International Summit virtual conference - spreadsheet sessionsI believe that the Educators in VR International Summit generated the most spreadsheets in the least amount of time on two subjects than any conference, work project, or business I’ve ever been involved with. After twenty-some spreadsheets, all variations on a theme of managing the speakers and the events, plus all the spreadsheets connecting volunteers with the events, we came up with a new name for spreadsheets: spreadshiits. Seriously. We felt like we were drowning in them, and every one was absolutely necessary for the purpose they were created for.

I have to give full credit to the queen of spreadsheets, Donna McTaggart, who kept us sane by adding speaker and event IDs and scheduling identification numbers to help us keep track of all the information and data. Her spreadsheet work kept us sane, and we are so grateful for the work of the other volunteers including Karen Myers, Sue Glascoe, Margie Dimond, and Steve Lewis for their deep dives into the spreadsheets as well.

There was much to keep track of for the conference, speaker contact information, speaker presentation information, speaker availability, usernames, volunteer contact information, volunteer skills, volunteer availability, schedules, platform availability, the list just kept going on and on. We made it work, and we are smarter for it, and we have some great suggestions from our volunteer support team on how to make this less labor intensive in the future, and we’re working on implementing those ideas.

The greatest challenge we faced was the schedule. The majority of our speakers came from outside North America. We had dozens of time zones to deal with across the six days. We tried using TimeandDate.com, a brilliant free calendar and scheduling site, and more spreadsheet formula deep diving, and even Microsoft Office and Google Sheets staff are on record admitting that dealing with time zones is one of their greatest challenges that they have yet to resolve with a one-click answer for users. Sleepless one night wrestling with this, my husband urged me to either talk about what was troubling me or sleep in the living room as I was fidgeting too much. I told him and he sighed and said, “Just use Outlook.com’s calendar. Two clicks and you change the time zone to help you book for wherever your clients are. I use it every day.” I bounced out of bed, tested it, and our world was rocked.

Outlook.com schedule for 2020 Educators in VR International Summit.Donna, Daniel, and I shared a single Outlook.com calendar and started booking events, switching time zones easily to ensure we could meet the needs of our speakers and track team members and schedule accordingly.

Some speakers made it easy by providing us detailed and specific information of their availability on our speaker application. “10AM-3PM CET, Tuesday and Thursday only.” Unfortunately, some speakers offered “11AM” and we had to research them to find their time zone. This worked fairly well until we ran into a situation with two of the speakers who lived in one country but were currently working in another on the other side of the world. We were able to easily change their presentation time with Outlook.com once we knew the new time zone.

Of all the challenges we faced, we have to admit that managing time zones may have been made easy with Outlook.com calendar, but it was still one of the most difficult aspects of this huge virtual conference.

Once we had the schedule in place, I was able to link the web-based version to the Microsoft Office desktop version of Outlook, which allowed CSV exports to import into our many spreadsheets, allowing us to match times with speaker presentations and volunteers with more spreadsheet magic by Donna.

AltspaceVR is a social and event platform, and event hosts rely upon two calendars via the in-world VR interface and websites. There are non-featured events, featured events, and featured events that are forwarded to the Oculus Calendar team for potential inclusion in their calendar, which is accessible on their website and in-VR to everyone with Oculus devices, extending the market reach. Introducing 100+ events into that calendar system required much negotiation and compromise, and should be seriously considered for the pros and cons for all virtual conferences facing similar challenges.

Added to this is the fact that we were hosting events on multiple platforms, not one, so the events on each platform required highlighting individually on the master calendar on our website, and per platform. Without a database to automatically update the website calendars, the information was manually updated every time there was a change. We now know that we could have used Outlook.com calendar groups, but the lack of specific color coding and visual clues to ensure people could identify quickly where an event was located made that a bit problematic, but we are exploring it for future use.

How do you not flood a VR platform’s calendar while promoting your events fairly?

We committed that there would be no more than 2 simultaneous events in a single hour in AltspaceVR, plus no more than two on other platforms, restricting an hour to no more than 4 choices. We were able to keep that promise.

As the events on other platforms didn’t overlap, these were the options we considered for AltspaceVR:

  • 24-hour single sessions: This was our original plan. We wanted one 24-hour session with a few isolated individual events such as panels or keynotes. The rule is that all events must be attended by the event host(s) and/or moderators at all times. The reality was that scheduling people from around the world and many time zones gave us odd gaps that weren’t conducive to a single 24-hour event. As a single event, it would be hard to promote a specific speaker or topic without retraining the thinking of many VR users. While it works for live streams and events with veteran VR users, we anticipated correctly that the International Summit would bring in many new users struggling to find event starting times.
  • Individual Events: As our concerns were to not flood the calendar and make it appear like it was the Educators in VR show, the AltspaceVR team recommended against this. The benefits of hosting speaker presentations as individual events should have convinced us to go against their recommendation, and we will in the future. The benefits include the ability to precisely schedule a speaker and support team. The event link may be used by the speaker and PR team to individually promote their presentations, increasing marketing visibility and ease of promotion. Administratively, it would have saved us at least 60 hours of unnecessary problem-solving and labor for multiple team members.
  • Sessions: Sessions were recommended as a way to minimize the flood of the calendar by grouping presentations together by one, two, or three hour time slots. This would work in a perfect world where we could group together tracks and related topics, but the global nature of the time zones we were working with didn’t allow for such luxury. It was painful enough to ask speakers to get up or go to bed one or two hours off their normal schedule, but having them get up at 3AM their time zone to present just to accommodate our need to mix and match – we couldn’t do that. Our team worked long hours going through the schedule and selecting which presentations to group together based on availability, not topic. The one thought that kept us on this path was the idea that if someone came in at 9AM for a specific speaker, there would be potentially enough interest in the second speaker for them to hang around and that speaker would pick up new fans and potential connections. It did work that way, but there are other ways to do the same thing. Still, the overriding concern to prevent overloading the calendar led us in this direction.

By mixing individual and sessions, we were able to reduce the number of events to be booked in AltspaceVR from over 100 to 67.

What did we learn from this decision?

The AltspaceVR events calendar with the Educators in VR International Summit events.That the AltspaceVR events calendar is healthy enough to withstand the flood of our free, open-to-the-public conference events. Most days there were enough events going on to not intimidate the calendar.

We also teamed up with some of the most popular event hosts to include them in the International Summit, producing several of the more popular Summit events. We brought together the leaders in virtual religious and spiritual events to discuss hosting such events and educational opportunities in VR. The LGBTQ+ and Friends meetup brought forth a panel that openly shared the challenges of diversity and how to work within a community as a community to support and encourage each other, shedding much needed light and hope for such a sensitive topic. And the events panel presentation featured some of the most experienced event hosts in AltspaceVR and VR social platforms to share their insights, challenges, and techniques for not only producing virtual events, but building a long-standing community in and around them. The insights from these experts in virtual events helped educators and researchers and enthusiast from around the world not only see the potential but the tremendous need to share our skills and knowledge and talents in a way that breaks down barriers and is highly diverse and inclusive.

Another trick recommended by the AltspaceVR events team was to change the branding of the events just slightly to ensure variation across the calendar interfaces. We applied slight nine color shifts to the Educators in VR logo and used these semi-randomly. The effect was actually beautiful and caught many people’s attention in a way that likely drew in newcomers to the events. We will use this in the future in response to the positive complements and appreciation of the AltspaceVR staff.

It Takes a Village

2020 Educators in VR International Summit - Closing Ceremonies Social - by globeIn addition to the generosity of the speakers and volunteers, the Educators in VR event production team wants us to remember that we may do all this virtually, but we can’t do this without the support of those in the real world and from our volunteer team.

People stepped up from all walks of life, job history, event experiences, and virtual reality expertise. We quickly honed in on their various skills, shuffling them where they were needed and offering training sessions and fast mentoring, but for the most part, each person stepped in where and when they were needed and offered their help willingly. When the need was there and they didn’t have the skills, many jumped online and researched the information, and went to work. It was amazing to watch the energy, passion, and self-directed motivation.

Having a strong and stable team around you is critical to producing any large project, especially one like this with so many moving parts. The skill hardest to train is compassion, respect, patience, and support, and our team members have that in abundance. “How can we help” and “Let us do more” were the two themes heard over and over again.

Many of our team members barely slept, testing their resolve and patience. We worked long hours and overtime to ensure all the speakers and volunteers were prepared, and the event was covered on every platform and for every speaker and virtual location. Many of us slept for only a few hours every day to ensure that everything went smoothly, and when we did, we know that the others had our backs. These efforts don’t come without a price.

Luckily, most of us had family, friends, and jobs so excited about what we were doing, they stepped up and helped out in big and little ways. Dishes and laundry were suddenly being done, meals served, and appointments kept leaving our team members able to focus on the tasks ahead.

Behind the Scenes - Educators in VR International Conference - Brush Your Teeth virtual conferencePersonally, one of my favorite notes of support I received during the conference came from a best friend who reminded me to brush my teeth. It wasn’t that I wasn’t take care of myself, but she knew me well enough to know that it was highly likely, and I laughed so hard I fell off my chair. That’s a true friend.

As with real-world conferences, adequate food, sleep, and personal support are essential. Just because to you can log in from any computer or via a VR device from anywhere in the world, from home, office, in your pajamas or business suit, doesn’t mean you don’t need these key life-sustaining elements.

We will be smarter going forward to not spread ourselves so thin, and ensure that everyone takes advantage of breaks and rest periods. Just as racing from one side of a conference hall to another 20 times a day is exhausting, so is sitting at a computer in full-focus mode for endless hours. It takes a toll on the body and spirit.

Data Analytics

Please remember, social, event, and educational platforms are still new, still in development, and we are pioneers. Time, money, and energy is pouring into support, maintenance, and development of these platforms, and while data analytics maybe critical information for event producers and hosts, it is low on their list of priorities. It is a work in progress, as are we all.

While we are still waiting for data from all the platforms, we wanted to share what we know so far.

The data we wanted to know included:

  • Attendee counts.
  • Comparison between attendee counts, RSVP, and kicks or removals.
  • User locations.
  • User VR devices.
  • Time of arrival and departure from an event.
  • Length of stay within an event.

And other various tidbits that would help us understand better what we’d just accomplished and have a better feel for what we needed to do going forward.

Again, they are trying to bring us as much as possible, but so far, AltspaceVR is the first to provide any information and it is attendee counts and RSVPs.

We can honestly say that the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit attracted 5,449 attendees. Add that to our initial estimates from the other platforms, there were about 6,000 attendees.

Sounds so impressive, but let’s really be honest about these numbers.

An attendee is a user that enters an event space. Did they stay for the whole time period? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know. Did they enter and crash and have to re-enter? Maybe, but AltspaceVR tells us these are uniques, not counting those who left and returned.

Does this measure how many people attended the International Summit? No. This number is a total from the attendees of all the events. If 500 people attended 12 events, that would represent 6,000 attendees. Our initial estimates are that the average person attended 6 events, which could represent 1000 attendees.

We could play with these numbers for ages and still only have guestimates, but we know this Summit made an impact in the lives of the attendees and those around them as we provided large scale events are not only possible but feasible.

There were 2,907 RSVPs for the events in AltspaceVR. This lower number could be because people arrived directly without knowing how the calendar system worked, or scheduled themselves and didn’t need to RSVP for an email reminder as there were so many events. Like the attendee number, this is an interesting bit of data, but it still has too many questions associated with it.

So what do we know?

The best event times, at least for our six day experiment, were 10AM to 1PM PST (6PM to 9Pm UK). Was this a prime time as those in North America were able to attend from home or work and those in the UK and Europe (and equivalent time zones) were able to attend after work? While we had single events with greater attendance due to being keynotes and special panels, we found that this time slot was the highest for attendance, with 4PM to 7PM PST (Midnight to 3AM UK) next popular. Scheduling keynotes and special events outside of those times draws in more people as they are often willing to stay up later to attend, but we found few people willing to get up early no matter what the topic, true of most real-world meetings and conferences.

It’s fairly easy to look out on a crowd of VR users and identify those using 2D/Desktop, Oculus Go, and Oculus Quest and other tethered devices by their virtual hands. 2D users don’t have arms or hand movements. Go and Samsung Gear users have one hand that usually sticks out in a handshake. The rest of two hand controllers and the users tend to move them around.

By talking to the audience, plus this visual feedback, we’ve guessed that the majority of the audience were using 2D or Oculus Products.

Meeting with the speakers, we found that many of them used 2D, many Oculus Go, but some also used Rift, Index, and Vive. There were few Quest users though many were considering their purchase for themselves and their classrooms or labs. As many were presenting from their educational institutions and offices, the higher end VR devices were appropriate and expected.

Our keynotes and panels were the most popular events both on AltspaceVR and ENGAGE. Mat Chacon’s topic on the development of a virtual high school on an island in Africa and a school on the east coast of the United States combined with the LGBTQ+ Panel and another session featuring Maya Bartolf and her XR Super Girls program were the top attended sessions.

The topics of most interest from the preliminary data, taking into consideration that some of these events were sessions representing diverse topics, were:

  • Diversity and inclusion.
  • Elder care (mental and health).
  • VR in training and careers.
  • WebXR.
  • Creative Arts and Roblox Studio.
  • World building design and development.
  • VR/AR research, assessment, and pedagogy.

Budget and Expenses

Our GoFundMe campaign continues, not just to offset the costs of the International Summit, which were few, but also to support our ongoing mission to provide more educational workshops, trainings, and conferences of all sizes and shapes, and fund our scholarship and outreach programs. Every little bit helps, so please, feel generous.

Memorial honoring Chris Long in Engage.

Chris Long died almost a year ago, and we held a memorial in ENGAGE for him the first full-day of the International Summit. He was the inspiration for our all-virtual international conference.

We are so grateful to be able to work with the VR platforms to provide free and open access, even to those behind a paywall ordinarily. AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium Space offered us near unlimited support and access to staff and developers, and even brought in special speakers and topics to add to the wealth of information for the International Summit. While users may have their loyalties, the willingness to cross platforms and work with competitors proves that the VR social and educational platform industry is healthy and working together to change the world, and we are so thrilled to be a part of the process. We are proud to call these companies our platform partners.

We are asked constantly which is the “best” virtual platform for education, meetings, and conferences, and we don’t have a good answer. They all have different features and functions, so explore. Experiment. Follow us on our “Educators in VR on the Road” series where we take you to the different platforms and explore their potential for learning. They are a helpful bunch, and eager to show you their potential so you may choose the right platform or platforms for your needs.

Our presenters volunteered to speak for free to share their knowledge, insights, and passion with us and be a part of this ground-breaking virtual conference. We are so grateful, and we will be bringing back many of these speakers for future workshops and smaller conferences, so stay tuned for news.

Over 75 people gave us their time and energy for two weeks leading up to the International Summit, the week of, and are still going. The passion and determination continues to drive us forward and we cannot thank each and every one of them enough as we break new ground in virtual education and conferences.

Our overall budget at the start of this was zero. We wanted to see how inexpensive we could keep this grass roots, “Woodstock” educational conference, as Tom Furness described it. BUT, we don’t recommend this. A conference like this is a prototype, a proof of concept, an opportunity to explore the possible. Any other conference should pay their speakers, staff, and offset all the costs associated with use of virtual platforms. Attendees should pay, though finding funding to allow them in for free, especially compared to the savings over a real-world conference, to help offset costs as well. Going forward, this is something we are seriously considering, especially as tickets to specific events and the overall conference would provide us with the data we need to keep improving.

Conferences come in all shapes and sizes, so finding an “average” cost to attend or produce such an event in the real world leaves us guessing. For a 6-day conference, it could be anywhere from USD $20,000 to a million or even more. While our free, free, free, and volunteer-supported conference can’t directly compare yet, here are the costs involved for the International Summit.

  • Slides.com Pro Account (for speakers): $60
  • Google Drive Storage (for videos): $30
  • Spreadsheet to Gmail Mail Merge Add-in: $15
  • Daniel’s power generator: $150
  • Odds and ends: $75

The total is USD $330. The generator was used and considered essential as Wales was facing devastating storms, flooding, and power outages for the weeks leading up to the Summit, and Daniel was not only managing all the different events across multiple platforms, but also live streaming and recording many of the events at the same time. The generator worked great, and luckily wasn’t needed, but a good precaution.

This certainly doesn’t include the expense or investment in virtual devices by the audience and speakers, a cost they have to carry on their own or use the tools provided by their employers or schools.

To have produced an event so vast for so little money is a testament to the support of the platforms, the speakers, and the volunteers, and a hint to those considering virtual conferences as a viable alternative. We proved it could be done for little or no money. Now is the time get financial backing and support behind virtual conferences, and Educators in VR are the experts you should consider hiring as advisors, consultants, or event producers.

Discoveries and Lessons Learned

Tom Furness Keynote the window - Educators in VR International ConferenceWe can honestly say that everyone involved, audience, speaker, volunteer, all have some great stories of lessons learned, skill sets expanded, new relationships, and great self and professional discoveries and lessons learned. We are still collecting as many of these as possible and will share them over time.

This is what our team reports as their biggest discoveries and lessons learned.

  • View of Tom Furness Keynote from outside the window - Educators in VR International ConferenceWe are not alone. This is happening. Now. We aren’t alone. We are no longer on the outside looking in or feeling isolated by distance or knowledge. We discovered that there are others facing the same challenges and working on the same things that we are, and we all have similar goals. The synergy of this International Conference was incredible and partnerships and profession relationships are being made right now behind the scenes, many involving Educators in VR, and we are so excited to see what will come of all this.
  • Most speakers were from Europe and Asia: This truly was a surprise, and yet wasn’t. The global representation was our goal, but to find so many experts from outside of North America determined to share their expertise, experiences, and research was exceptional and delightful. People are pushing the limits and taking risks in virtual and spatial technologies all over the world and we were privileged to bring them together to learn from each other and learn from them.
  • The VR, AR, MR, and XR industry is exceptionally diverse. Teaching dance lessons in VR, bicycle safety, gang prevention, vaping prevention, computer programming, bio-molecular science, film therapy, anxiety therapy, life coaching, foreign languages, military simulations, virtual social media, medicine, surgery, healthcare, cultural preservation…never had such a diverse range of speakers and topics come together to discuss the impact of virtual technology on their work. The Summit connected people across departments, academic disciplines, and corporate industries, breaking barriers and new ground together.
  • Somnium Space auditorium built for Educators in VR International Summit.Be less restrictive with event spaces. We had several speakers request the ability to use other virtual worlds and 3D models, but the risk to crashing by mobile users was constantly an issue in AltspaceVR, though not so much on the other platforms with lower audience limits. Our desire to host up to 80 people in the AltspaceVR event spaces overrode the realization that many presentations would attract a far fewer number, but we couldn’t be sure of that. When working with high load and performance virtual spaces, the fewer people, the better the experience, plus the inability to use tools like Front Row to mirror the event space. While we wait for consumer devices to come down in price but increase in performance, we will be more flexible with the event spaces outside of keynotes and special events, allowing a virtual experience that maximizes the potential of virtual.
  • Educators in VR International Summit - Social Event space.People attend scheduled social events, not just social spaces. Our social space was open 24 hours a day and often staffed with volunteers eager to help and meet and greet attendees, however, we had few social events scheduled. We learned that people show up to be social when the social events are scheduled and on the calendar. They won’t if the space just sits there waiting for them.
  • People do not read. This is a lesson most teachers know well, but it was surprising the number of speakers and volunteers who didn’t read the concise and specific guides and kits provided to help them through this process, especially if they were new. People don’t read signs, look at instructional pictures, nor read the instructions. While a generalized sweeping judgement, knowing this helps us understand better how to modularize our support documentation and increase our training and rehearsal programs to ensure people feel safe and comfortable using VR.
  • Slides and video have much room for improvement in VR: As explained in all of our training sessions, YouTube, Slides.com, and Google Slides have no idea that their tools are being used in virtual reality. We are likely a small decimal point in their demographics, yet we are dependent upon these third-party tools for presenting our topics. As third-party tools, the ability to see the slides and videos were problematic as VR devices, including 2D, were often taxed beyond their capability, requiring the user re-enter the event space or even turn off and on their devices to clear the cache, cool the devices, and ensure a better visual and audio experience. While it is easy to blame the VR platform, the problems are with the devices and the third-party tools. Until consumer devices have increased capabilities including cache, memory, and performance, and third-party tools realize they are serving this budding unique technological audience, our current options are to use smaller audience sizes, simplify slide features and functionalities (no fading, no animation, simple layouts), and keep video simple, short, and for special use alone, linked, or embedded in the slide decks.
  • People want more. Even before the International Summit began, the team was already planning for next year as well as the next event. The ideas for smaller events flowed in, along with many suggestions for doing it better next year. We are already making plans for more, so stay tuned.

The Educators in VR team set out to prove that a large all-virtual conference could be done. Not just done, but done well. The feedback we’ve received so far has focused on the positive, with complaints about the technical issues not so much the event itself, its speakers, topics, or content.

Next time, we will feature our speakers individually, giving each the attention they deserve. We are already beginning the training and mentoring process for our volunteers covering each skill set, and allowing those who led in this conference teach others how to do it better. As with all valuable knowledge, we want to pass it on.

We’re developing training courses to help you produce your own virtual events of all sizes. The Educators in VR team is already providing consultation services to companies exploring virtual meetings and conferences, and negotiating production of virtual conferences and workshops for a variety of companies globally. We planned on taking our time, but with the demand for alternatives due to the COVID-19/coronavirus, we’re stepping up and into this as part of our range of services for working with business and academia to integrate virtual technologies.

If we can assist you, please contact us for more information.

5 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Hosting a VR Conference

  1. Pingback: Green Conference: Reducing Carbon Emissions with a Virtual Conference | Educators in VR

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  3. Pingback: Organiser un évènement complètement « virtuel » : petit retour d'expérience | Grégory MAUBON

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