Editorial: Why Conferences Held in AltspaceVR and VirBELA Have Been So Successful—And What Lessons Other Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds Can Learn from Their Success

Please note that I am taking a vacation from the blog for the next two to three weeks, except for sponsored blogposts (and the occasional editorial such as this).


The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of hundreds of real-life conferences, and led to a surge in business for platforms catering to virtual conferences, such as VirBELA and AltspaceVR (Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash).

This week, I have been attending various presentations and events at the Immersive Learning Research Network’s 2020 virtual conference. Most of the sessions are taking place in a white-label* version of the virtual world VirBELA, and it would appear that this world will remain in place after the iLRN 2020 conference ends, as a meeting place for various groups of researchers.

The iLRN 2020 organizers are also using FRAME (a VirBELA project) for virtual poster sessions: smaller group gatherings around particular research topics. These poster sessions were accessible right from a browser on desktop, mobile, or even in virtual reality (more information on that can be found here).

The popular success of this conference in VirBELA (with well over 200 people in-world at any given time), plus the associated social events taking place in AltspaceVR, has got me thinking about another highly successful conference which I attended (and presented at) back in February 2020, the first-ever Educators in VR 2020 International Summit. In that case, most of the conference sessions were held in AltspaceVR, and the Educators in VR conference was really an opportunity for the platform to shine (there were also events taking place in ENGAGE, rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium Space, with livestreaming to other platforms).

What were the factors that led to such successful virtual conferences in AltspaceVR and in VirBELA?

  1. Scalability of the Platform: In both cases, you could pack a large number of people into a shared virtual space. This was especially notable in the case of VirBELA, where the simple (but still highly customizable) avatars, coupled with many possible graphics quality settings in the client software, meant that you could have well north of a hundred avatars attending a single session without noticeable performance issues. And AltspaceVR’s cartoony avatars serve an important purpose: making the platform much easier to render on less powerful computers and devices.
  2. Broader Device Support: VirBELA offers both Windows and Mac clients, and their Intercom Apps are compatible with iPhone, iPad, and even iPod touch! And AltspaceVR boasts support for a wide array of devices: when I last compiled my comparison chart of 16 social VR platforms last November, the list included Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, HTC Vive, Valve Index, Windows MR, Gear VR, and Google Daydream (please see the image below, taken from their website).
  3. Better Features: VirBELA is stuffed to the brim with useful features which make hosting a conference a breeze (e.g. the ability to quickly shift focus to one of three different presentation screens, or the podium/stage). AltspaceVR has also had a whole bunch of new features added to make holding events much easier (such as the ability to mute the audience, a raise your hand feature to ask questions, etc.).
  4. Responsive Support: It’s very clear that, in the cases of both the Educators in VR and iLRN 2020 conferences, that the platforms were heavily involved in providing support and troubleshooting to the conference organizers. Such support, often offered in real time, is critical to the success of any virtual conference.

So, what lessons can other social VR platforms and virtual worlds learn from these successes, as they seek out new customers in the pandemic-fueled boom in virtual conferences?

First: You need to find ways to work around the technical limits in the number of people who can gather in a virtual space. For example, Sansar is absolutely gorgeous, and I could see it being used for conferences—if you could get more than 30 avatars into a single world! (However, Sansar does allow for multiple broadcast instances as a way to get around that limit.)

Second Life also has significant technical limitations on the number of avatars you can pack onto one sim before it heaves in protest (again, for major events such as the Live Stage at the SL 17th Birthday celebrations, a stage is located at the intersection of four sims to allow a larger audience).

In March 2018, I wrote an earlier blogpost about simultaneous avatar capacity per region in various virtual worlds here (this information is now probably out of date, though). VirBELA’s and AltspaceVR’s low-poly avatars make it much easier to gather a larger crowd at events in a single region than the beautiful but high-poly, poorly-optimized mesh avatars of Second Life. Sinespace’s Breakroom offers users the choice of dressable, higher-poly avatars or one-piece, non-customizable lower-poly avatars, which I presume will render better.

To summarize this first point: the more users you can bring together, the better.

Second: The more devices and means of access you can support, the more likely your platform will appeal to a larger number of people. As the team developing Sansar and the old High Fidelity learned to their chagrin, betting the farm on high-powered, PC VR users was a tactical error. The majority of people attending these conferences do not have a VR headset, using desktop computers with flatscreen monitors and even in some cases mobile devices like tablets and cellphones. You need to meet the users wherever they are.

Third: If you expect to attract the conferences, you will need to offer the features that conference organizers are looking for. Breakroom is an example of a product which offers a wide variety of features targeted to business, education, and conference customers. There is nothing worse than to try a jerry-rig workarounds for the limitations of a platform, trust me.

Finally: You need to provide real-time, responsive customer support. This is one area where many platforms simply fail to deliver the level of concierge support required to host conferences. For example, both of the recent Blockdown virtual crypto conferences (which were held in a special, white-label version of Sinespace) were well-staffed with Sinespace employees and volunteers to ensure that things ran smoothly. It’s a cost of doing business if you want to attract business.

If you were to hold a conference in Sansar (which you wouldn’t, because of the limitations outlined in points 1, 2, and 3 above), and if something were to go wrong, you would probably have some trouble getting the real-time support you needed from the team at Wookey (although I assume it will be an all-hands-on-deck situation for the upcoming Lost Horizon festival; Sansar simply cannot afford to fumble this opportunity to showcase their platform to the world).

For example, the Lost World Global Music Festivals two-day event (which has the great misfortune to be scheduled the exact same weekend as the Lost Horizon event), is having some trouble getting the word out, and frankly, Wookey-owned Sansar should be providing assistance in both promotion and technical support of events held on their platform, instead of relying on unpaid and overworked volunteers (I would hope that at least someone at Wookey is tasked with tech support if something goes wrong that weekend, but I suspect that the company’s entire focus will be on the Lost Horison festival, instead of the competing Lost World event).

In short, bare-bones customer support sends a message: you’re on your own. Corporate users such as conference organizers expect a higher standard of service, otherwise they will take their business elsewhere.

For example, ENGAGE has landed lucrative business with HTC (including a partnership as part of the Vive XR Suite) as a direct result of the successful HTC Vive Ecosystem virtual conference held on that platform in March this year. Sinespace also seems to be well-attuned to the needs of the business and conference market with their new Breakroom product (and, of course, their support for white-label corporate and conference use of their flagship Sinespace product).

The success of platforms such as AltspaceVR and VirBELA leads to positive word of mouth among the conference attendees, who can see the potential applications, and which naturally leads to increased business opportunities; it’s a virtuous circle.

The question is: will Sansar and other social VR platforms and virtual worlds pay attention to the lessons being taught by the highly successful and popular virtual conferences held this year by a number of platforms?


*White labeling is when a product or service removes their brand and logo from the end product and instead uses the branding requested by the purchaser. Recent examples include the iLRN 2020 conference (held in a white-label version of VirBELA) and the Blockdown series of conferences (hosted in a white-label version of Sinespace). This is a feature that is attractive to corporate and conference customers, which is not offered by many social VR platforms and virtual worlds to date.

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Meditation and Mindfulness in Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

We live in a crazy world—which the coronavirus pandemic has made even crazier. People who are struggling with self-isolation, lockdowns and quarantines are seeking some peace, and some are turning to social VR platforms and virtual worlds as places to practice meditation and mindfulness, and to connect with like-minded souls, at a time when social distancing makes group practices in the real world difficult.

Please note that I will not be covering solo, standalone VR meditation apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, since that is a separate category from the more open-ended social VR platforms and virtual worlds I write about on this blog. (By the way, I use and recommend both programs highly for meditation.)

AltspaceVR and EvolVR

EvolVR was founded by Rev. Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, and calls itself “the world’s first VR Spiritual Community”. According to the FAQ on their website:

Why Meditate in Virtual Reality?

Meditation can be beneficial alone or with others.  VR is a convenient way to meditate with others. Social Meditation has a long history and is part of the foundation of the monastic experience.  Meditation can be practiced by individuals at any time.  In fact, we are ultimately meant to be living each moment mindfully, which means meditatively.  Meditating with other people can act as an amplifier that can help strengthen our own practice.

How Can I Meditate with a Brick on My Head?

We often use the breath as an object of meditation.  The VR headset is just another distraction.There is always something that’s not supposed to be going on when we meditate, like a bad back or a bad day or a bad relationship. The practice of meditation teaches us to manage our attention, to help us put it where we want it to be.  So a VR headset is just another itch to be noticed.

It is a program which I believe had its start in Sansar, based on the following short promotional video, but it has since moved over to AltspaceVR:

EvolVR hosts one or two guided meditations every day, as well as daily group discussion circles on various topics (here is their calendar of upcoming events). They also have a Discord server you can join, with a little over a hundred members.

ENGAGE and MindWise VR

The ENGAGE educational social VR platform has been home to mindfulness workshops hosted by Caitlin Krause, which I have heard good reports about:

This has evolved into MindWise VR, which appears to be hosting regularly scheduled workshops, including an event on May 16th, 2020 (more info from her website):

Sansar

There is certainly no shortage of worlds in which to practice meditation and mindfulness in Sansar, just do a search on “meditation” in the Sansar Atlas (you can also try searching the Sansar Atlas using the term “mindfulness”, for even more suggestions of places):

Meditation Spaces in Sansar

In this case, especially if you prefer solo to group meditation, the fact that Sansar is not as popular as other social VR platforms, such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, means you can probably snag a semiprivate space to practice meditation and mindfulness on your own without too much trouble. Also, Sansar’s frankly gorgeous graphics and advanced lighting model mean that some truly beautiful, evocative, and mood-enhancing virtual environments are available for you to use for your practice.

Sansar Studios’ Zen Garden

Of particular note is the Meditation Station, created by DisneyHuntress, which offers links to five different meditation spaces, including a yoga studio, a forest, a labyrinth, a group meditation room, and even an ecstatic dance space to give your full-body tracking a workout!

Second Life

We end with the venerable, long-running virtual world of Second Life, which is home to so many virtual spaces devoted to meditation and mindfulness, some of which have been in operation for many years. So I trotted out my shaman avatar (because, OF COURSE, I have a role-playing alt who is a shaman!), and I set out to visit a few of them on a field trip.

My shaman avatar at Commune Utopia
(shaman robe from Spyralle)

Divine Mother has been around just about forever (since 2007), and the four-sim region features a healing pyramid, chakra meditation pillows, belly dancing, a pagoda for tai chi, an inspiration garden (with guided light meditation in English, French, Italian, Dutch and German), a dance floor featuring Bollywood music, a multi-story shopping mall with Indian fashions, a glass labyrinth, a marina, and even an international airport (?!). Handy teleporter panels whisk you away to dozens of meditation spots scattered all around the landscape.

The Buddhist Centre at Divine Mother

Free Spirit Farms is the hippie/bohemian commune you never knew you needed! If you join their free group, the owners even let you set your home location to this sim (which comes in handy sometimes). On the grounds is a campground, cottages to rent, a large rustic lodge, and game tables, all located in a beautifully landscaped, park-like environment and set to a groovy Sixties soundtrack. Free Spirit Farms offers a couple of live performers every Monday evening at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. SLT.

Gather ’round the campfire at Free Spirit Farms

You are spoiled for choice at Shambhala Sanctuary! Teleporters at the spawn point take you to (among many other places):

  • a chakra pavilion
  • an underwater sanctuary
  • a healing pool
  • a poetry barge
  • a spot where you can play the game Go
  • DreamLand, where you travel down the wishing well to a charming seaside community and boardwalk
DreamLand at Shambhala Sanctuary

The sanctuary building itself helpfully offers a wall with information (and SLURLs) about many other meditation and mindfulness sims and communities in Second Life:

Among these places are:

So, as you can see, there is lots to see, do, explore, and experience in SL! Peace out, man. Om shanti shanti shanti…

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Lessons Learned from the Educators in VR Conference

Lorelle VanFossen, one of the organizers of the wildly successful six-day Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, recently wrote up a very detailed blogpost outlining the experience of setting up and running a virtual conference on AltspaceVR and four other social VR platforms.

Here’s a link to the entire article on the Educators in VR website, and I would very strongly encourage you to read it in full. However, I will highlight just a couple of things that the Educators in VR group co-founders Daniel Dyboski-Bryant and Lorelle VanFossen, and their hard-working team of volunteers, learned along the way.

Their original plan was only to have 40 to 60 speakers, but that ballooned to 170 speakers in over 150 events spread over 6 days (happening at time zones around the clock for a global audience). Because everybody volunteered their time and energy for this free-to-attend event, the total costs for the entire six-day virtual conference were only around US$300! (Try doing that for a real-world conference!)

Most of the events were held in AltspaceVR:

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.

In fact, the team behind AltspaceVR learned so much from hosting this conference that they just announced a slew of new features, including links to Patreon and EventBrite to allow for ticketed events in future!

I’m sure that many new users were introduced to AltspaceVR because of the Educators in VR conference, and both parties benefited from the partnership! The summit also gave ENGAGE, Rumii, Somnium Space, and Mozilla Hubs an opportunity to show off their platforms to those who never experienced them before, too.

Other conference organizers were quick to take note. HTC decided to have its annual Vive Ecosystem Conference in ENGAGE. And both Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR were used for the recently concluded IEEE VR 2020 conference, which, for the first time, was held entirely in virtual reality (and opened up for free to the general public) due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Hearty congratulations to Lorelle and Daniel, and a special shout-out to Donna McTaggart, the tireless Summit Coordinator and Manager, and her team of 75 volunteers!

I leave you with a one-and-a-half hour YouTube video where the organizers share what they learned behind the scenes, a must watch!

Lorelle ends her article by saying that they are now taking what they have learned from running the Educators in VR Summit and making that expertise available to others as consultants:

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.

Pictures from Yesterday’s Libraries in XR Meetup in AltspaceVR

Yesterday evening, over a dozen people gathered at the second weekly Libraries in CR meetup in AltspaceVR, which I first wrote about here.

The presentation was by Australian brothers Scott and Steven Mundell, who paid a 30-day visit to libraries in California and who have set up a website, https://augmentedlibraries.com/, which serves as a searchable, curated collection of VR/AR/MR hardware, software, and experiences for libraries. Users can filter the collection by technology, theme or cost.

Here are a few pictures of last night’s meeting:

The Libraries in XR group has members from all around the world, who are interested in applications of VR and AR to public and academic libraries. The group plans to hold regular meetings in AltspaceVR, so check the Events Calendar for the next meetup! You can also join their Discord server (here’s an invitation). See you at the next meeting!