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.

More and More Conferences Are Going Virtual In Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic: Here’s a List of Events for the Rest of March (Thanks to Andy Fidel!)

Well, trickle that started with the highly successful Educators in VR 2020 International Summit has turned into a veritable flood, as dozens of conferences and events are moving away from real-world meetings to virtual ones, held on a variety of social VR platforms and virtual worlds.

Digital literacy educator Andy Fidel has compiled a document titled Running List of Conferences Going Virtual Due to Coronavirus Health Concerns — 2020, which he is updating as he hears of new events.

Here’s what’s coming up between now and the end of March (along with a couple of additions of my own). Thank you to Andy Fidel for all her work compiling this information!


March 16–19 | MVP Global Summit

“Microsoft has made the decision that this year’s MVP/Regional Director Summit will be an online-only/virtual event. Our entire team is working hard to plan and prepare an alternate experience that still provides the exclusive in-depth technical sessions in an online-only format and be inclusive to our globally distributed community.” [register here]


March 17–19 | Virtual Universe 2020

“Competing in today’s diverse market is no joke. Successful organizations must remain at the forefront of technology while controlling budgets, leveraging data, and ensuring security.” [register here]


March 18–19 | Women in Graphene 2020 Virtual Event

“The next Women in Graphene Career Development Day is going digital…join us on 18–19 March for an out of this world experience! This two-day event is an opportunity to discuss issues related to gender and diversity in science and technology fields and specifically in the graphene community.” [register here]


March 18 | Playable.GDC2020

“The Game Developer’s Conference has announced they will postpone their event. But all game developers know that with grit and innovation, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! PLAYABLE in the virtual reality streams from the event that you can attend from anywhere on the planet!” [register here]


March 18 | Domopalooza

“While we are disappointed not to be hosting Domopalooza in Utah, we are excited to bring the great content and conversations to you as an interactive online experience.” [register here]


March 19 | Spring Live

“Things are a little crazy right now. Were you excited about an upcoming conference that’s now cancelled? Same here. So we’re doing something about it. Complete the form and we’ll send you details on how to join this one-time event.” [register here]


March 19 | V²EC 2020 — Virtual VIVE Ecosytem Conference

“HTC usually hosts its Vive Ecosystem Conference (HTC 2020 VEC) in Shenzhen, China but due to the current climate will entirely host the event in virtual reality (VR).” [register here]


March 19–21 | Microsoft Build

“Join your peers and Microsoft engineers to learn, connect, and code together. Get inspired and leave a better developer than when you arrived.” [register here]


March 21–22 | Virtual Genius Conference

“Get ready for some very nuanced discussions/dialectics, lots of cutting-edge solutions to problems that the world hasn’t even acknowledged exists, to find like minds and new hobbies, and for a sneaky look at future trends (we tend to know them first!).” [register here]


March 24 | EMOTIONAI

“Join us for a virtual conference featuring leaders in tech and EQ to explore how AI and EQ can collaborate to build emotional connections for our future.” [register here]


March 22–26 | 2020 IEEE VR

“Out of an abundance of caution surrounding COVID-19, the decision has been made to convert the in-person component of VR 2020 into an all-digital conference experience — VR 2020 will now be an online event. The IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) is the premier international event for the presentation of research results in the broad area of virtual reality (VR).” [register here]


March 25 | MoCDA Spring 2020 Virtual Conference

“How do you share information with your students, clients, and other stakeholders, such as department chairs and local employers? A picture is worth a thousand words. Discover how career practitioners can enhance their website content and workshop materials with original images, including infographics, without having graphic design experience.” [register here]


March 24–25 | TRANSFORM

“#TRANSFORM2020 Online will deliver the complete conference as programmed via live streaming on 24 & 25 March with all content uploaded for viewing post-event. We will film all the sessions as programmed and will video conference in remote speakers where feasible. Delegates will be able to join the conversation and participate in sessions by submitting their questions and comments live — stay tuned.” [register]


March 23 | The Ultimate Tech Skills Conference

“Pluralsight LIVE Europe is now a virtual event open to everyone. Tune in for exciting product announcements, a message from Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard and sessions on tech trends, skill development, best practices and more. Register below to get information on how to access it and a reminder when it goes live on 23 March.” [register here]


March 25 | Microsoft Developer Virtual Conference

“Calling all developers! Get ready to dev-level-up. Spend one day exploring a digital virtual conference and learning from experts across the nation. This digital event enables all types of developers to connect and learn through 5 different tracks and 20 sessions, as well as an online Partner lounge to build connections and discover a range of developer tools and services. Join sessions created for developers and discover the capabilities of the Microsoft Cloud ecosystem.” [register here]

March 25–26 | OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum

“Forum will go ahead in a virtual format, allowing participants to join the sessions from anywhere in the world, contribute to the debates and engage with speakers in real time.” [register here]


March 25–26 |Virtual World Best Practices in Education

The long-running Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) conference will take place in the virtual world of Second Life from March 26th to 28th, 2020. The keynote on Saturday March 28th will by Lorelle VanFossen and Daniel Dyboski-Bryant, who will share their experience creating and running the first-ever Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, which was a resounding success with 160 speakers over six days on five different social VR platforms, and a model for future virtual conferences. The title of Lorelle and Daniel’s keynote is Lessons Learned from the 2020 Educators in VR Conference. [register here]


March 29-April 1 | Association of Test Publishers

“Innovations in Testing 2020 has made the unprecedented decision to cancel their on-site meeting in San Diego and turn Innovations 2020 into a Virtual On-line Conference. These are extraordinary times and in some ways it is a remarkable opportunity to put into play the technology and e-learning that we have talked so much about.” [register here]


March 31-April 2 | Adobe Summit — The Digital Experience Conference

Watch the keynote live: Hear about trends and new products that are transforming industries from the comfort of your wherever. Explore 100+ breakouts on demand: Get free access to over a hundred on-demand breakout sessions from Adobe, customers, and partners. Sneak a peak at the future: Join special guest Chelsea Handler for a look at the latest experimental tech from our labs — at Adobe Sneaks. [register here]


There are many more conferences and events taking place past the end of March, 2020; for further details please refer to Andy Fidel’s blogpost on Medium. (Thanks, Andy!)

UPDATED! Editorial: Why Facebook Horizon Will Be Delayed

Facebook was originally planning to launch their social VR platform, called Facebook Horizon, in a closed beta test early this year. Many people were expecting an announcement at their annual Facebook F8 Developer Conference, or perhaps at the Game Developers Conference.

Well, on February 27th, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was cancelling its F8 conference, citing coronavirus concerns:

Facebook  has confirmed that it has canceled its annual F8 developers conference over growing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

More specifically, the company says it’s canceling the “in-person component,” which would have been held in San Jose, Calif. There may still be video presentations, along with live-streamed and local events, under the F8 umbrella.

“Celebrating our global developer community at F8 each year is incredibly important to us at Facebook, but we won’t sacrifice the health and safety of our community to do so,” said Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, in a statement. “Out of concerns around COVID-19, we’re cancelling the in-person component of F8, but we look forward to connecting with our developer partners through local events, video and live streamed content.”

And more recently, it was announced that the Game Developers Conference, which was supposed to take place this month, would be postponed until later this summer. UploadVR reports:

The organizers of the Game Developers Conference postponed the event after sponsors, attendees, journalists, and developers decided not to come due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

In recent days some of the event’s biggest supporters including Epic, Unity, Facebook, Sony, Amazon, and many more, along with a large number of journalists and developers, pulled out of attendance at the event. Many companies encouraged their employees not to travel to the March event in San Francisco.

Here’s the statement from organizers:

After close consultation with our partners in the game development industry and community around the world, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone the Game Developers Conference this March.

Having spent the past year preparing for the show with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors, and event partners, we’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time .

We want to thank all our customers and partners for their support, open discussions and encouragement. As everyone has been reminding us, great things happen when the community comes together and connects at GDC. For this reason, we fully intend to host a GDC event later in the summer. We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks.

The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and resulting travel restrictions has led to dozens of conferences around the world being cancelled or postponed. Many major corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are also restricting or outright cancelling employee travel.

I think all this means that Facebook will likely postpone the launch of Facebook Horizon, since they won’t have any suitable venue at which to make a splashy announcement. And let’s face it, with the world being so preoccupied with this expanding global public health emergency, any platform launch would likely be muted, sidelined, and overlooked. People have other, much more pressing, priorities at the moment, like trying to find supplies of Purell hand sanitizer and 3M face masks.

Another complicating factor, as I have reported before, is that supplies of both Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S VR headsets are simply unavailable in most markets, due to the coronavirus shutting down many Chinese factories. Apparently, production of the Valve Index VR headset is also being negatively impacted. The HTC Vive headset is manufactured in Taiwan, and so far does not appear to have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. (Here’s a February 28th article from IGN on how SARS-CoV-2 is impacting the manufacture and sales of VR headsets.)

Of course, Facebook may just decide to launch Facebook Horizon in closed beta anyway, using livestreamed video and other not-in-person means, but I think they will choose to hold back. A company that makes billions of dollars in profit from advertising knows full well the benefit of a well-timed product launch, with an all-out advertising push. The timing is just plain wrong.

P.S. I am curious though; has anybody been invited yet to take part in the closed beta test for Facebook Horizon? I haven’t (but then, given how critical I have been of Facebook on this blog, I wasn’t expecting to be invited). Any anonymous tipsters want to whisper in my ear? 😉

UPDATE March 3rd: I’ve heard through the grapevine that Facebook will be launching a closed (invitation-only) alpha of Facebook Horizon this spring.