2020 Educators in VR International Summit

Article by Ben Loveridge (Co-ordinator, Immersive Media, Learning Environments)

Back in 2015 I wrote about the potential of using AltspaceVR for collaboration in virtual reality such as meetings, conference discussions or social hangouts. Fast forward five years and we've seen a successful example of what may have been the largest and most ambitious conference about virtual reality (VR), ever held in VR.

Educators in VR conference selfies
Ben Loveridge (avatar in green), Jeanette Tamplin (avatar in white) and attendees pose for a post-presentation selfie during the Educators in VR conference held in AltspaceVR on February 19th, 2020. Screenshot by Ben Loveridge.

The 2020 Educators in VR International Summit consisted of 170 presentations over six days, running 24/7 across four social VR platforms. Thousands of participants from all over the world attended and learned how VR is being used in an educational context.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a growing trend of activities going online from educational content such as MOOC’s to concerts inside of computer games. A reluctance to travel due to environmental concerns has also increased with bands such as Coldplay recently announcing they would not tour until they can could offer carbon-neutral concerts. Early 2020 also saw a tipping point occur with almost every physical conference cancelled over the following months due to the COVID-19 virus, many opting to proceed virtually instead.

Ben Loveridge and Jeanette Tamplin on stage as avatars
Ben Loveridge and Jeanette Tamplin present on their Music Therapy in VR research project during the during the Educators in VR conference held in AltspaceVR on February 19th, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy of @meganlove85)

Alongside my colleague Jeanette Tamplin, we presented our work on Music Therapy in VR, a research project that has been running since 2015 investigating real-time signing and VR for people with spinal cord injuries.

We’re not yet at the stage where spatial recordings are available but plenty of 2D videos of presentations can be found on the Educators in VR YouTube channel. For those interested in learning more, there are also Educators in VR Weekly Workshops.

Alongside an enthusiastic collection of presenters was an army of dedicated organisers and volunteers who planned, coordinated and moderated sessions. This behind the scenes overview explains in more detail how it all came together. Many presenters and attendees already owned VR devices, so the technology access was not so much of an issue. Those without VR headsets could also join the virtual spaces using a PC, making the sessions accessible in 2D mode as well.

Tips for presenting in VR

  • Use white text on a black background
  • Keep text on screen to a minimum and use large pictures
Ben Loveridge and Jeanette Tamplin on stage as avatars
Ben Loveridge and Jeanette Tamplin present on their Music Therapy in VR research project during the during the Educators in VR conference held in AltspaceVR on February 19th, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy of @meganlove85)

The pros and cons of running conferences in virtual reality vs video conferencing

Don’t just replicate a real-life PowerPoint presentation inside of a virtual world, utilise the unique benefits of the space

- Ben Loveridge (2015)

The traditional method of PowerPoint slides in conferences using is pretty hard to shake (even in VR) and contrary to my own advice this is what we ended up doing in our presentation, party due to platform limitations but also as this was our first time presenting in VR. There is a growing interest in utilising more interactive and spatial elements in social VR spaces such as Mozilla Hubs and Engage which allow for this type of approach. It’s certainly something to strive for in future sessions to make a more immersive experience for the audience.

Virtual reality

Pros

  • Level playing field - it's more about what you say, not what you look like
  • See the audience respond in real time through emoji's
  • User controlled breakout spaces for networking
  • Spatialised audio allows for more natural conversations in groups within a shared space
  • Clothes optional (IRL)
  • Standalone hardware (such as the Oculus Quest or Go) is easy to use and the hardware such as microphone and speakers is already well configured
  • On most platforms a requires a lower bandwidth than video conferencing

Cons

  • Potential for too much anonymity which can lead to trolls
  • Limited facial expressions, need to be expressed via emoji's
  • Reduced accessibility as not everyone has a VR headset

Video conferencing 

Pros

  • See faces and expressions
  • Pants optional IRL (if sitting)
  • Very accessible from most hardware platforms

Cons

  • Ad-hoc interaction limited in sessions since everyone is in the same session, can be like everyone is squashed into a phone booth
  • Requires heavy moderation for group discussions

Aspects common to both

  • Requires well controlled moderation to facilitate Q&A
  • Audience muting by default on entry. Muting is toggled during Q&A or discussion by host/moderator
  • Savings in time, travel, cost, environment
  • Increased accessibility for those with mobility impairments, health issues or travel limitations
  • Reduced environment impact from long distance travel carbon emissions