I recently received the following email, containing details on the next iLRN conference, which will take place in the virtual world of VirBELA:
The 7th International Conference of the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN 2021) will be an innovative and interactive virtual gathering for a strengthening global network of researchers and practitioners collaborating to develop the scientific, technical, and applied potential of immersive learning. It is the premier scholarly event focusing on advances in the use of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and other extended reality (XR) technologies to support learners across the full span of learning—from K-12 through higher education to work-based, informal, and lifelong learning contexts.
Following the success of iLRN 2020, our first fully online and in-VR conference, this year’s conference will once again be based on the iLRN Virtual Campus, powered by VirBELA, but with a range of activities taking place on various other XR simulation, gaming, and other platforms. Scholars and professionals working from informal and formal education settings as well as those representing diverse industry sectors are invited to participate in the conference, where they may share their research findings, experiences, and insights; network and establish partnerships to envision and shape the future of XR and immersive technologies for learning; and contribute to the emerging scholarly knowledge base on how these technologies can be used to create experiences that educate, engage, and excite learners.
Note: The 2020 iLRN conference drew over 3,600 attendees from across the globe, making the scheduling of sessions a challenge. In 2021, conference activities will be spread over a four-week period so as to give attendees more opportunities to participate at times that are conducive to their local time zones.
Papers and proposals may be submitted to one of 10 program tracks, the first nine of which correspond to the iLRN Houses of application, and the tenth of which is intended for papers making knowledge contributions to the learning sciences, computer science, and/or game studies that are not linked to any particular application area:
Assessment and Evaluation (A&E)
Early Childhood Development & Learning (ECDL)
Galleries, Libraries, Archives, & Museums (GLAM)
Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, & Social Justice (IDEAS)
K-12 STEM Education
Language, Culture, & Heritage (LCH)
Medical & Healthcare Education (MHE)
Nature & Environmental Sciences (NES)
Workforce Development & Industry Training (WDIT)
Basic Research and Theory in Immersive Learning (not linked to any particular application area)
The IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) is the premier conference for Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR). ISMAR explores the advances in commercial and research activities related to AR and MR and Virtual Reality (VR) by continuing the expansion of its scope over the past several years. The symposium is organized and supported by the IEEE Computer Society, IEEE VGTC and ACM SIGGRAPH.
Here are the virtual conference details from an email I received:
The Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) is proud to be hosting the 19th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2020) on our iLRN Virtual Campus, powered by VirBELA, and to be supporting the conference as a Gold Sponsor. ISMAR is the premier technical and scientific research conference on AR and MR technologies. There is still time to register for this exciting conference!
Come along to learn from and interact with researchers from all over the world, who will be sharing the latest advances in the field. In addition, through an immersive experience, you will have the opportunity to enjoy Brazilian cultural attractions in a unique and unforgettable way!
Note: The iLRN Virtual Campus is accessible either (a) in desktop mode on a PC or Mac; or (b) using a tethered PC VR headset (HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest with Link Cable). Sessions will also be streamed on YouTube Live.
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?
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.
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.).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
Conference attendees must download and install a white-label version of VirBELA to attend most of the conference presentations and events. Here’s a look at the spawn point next to the information booth:
However, VirBELA is intended for corporate and conference use, as opposed to the more open-ended uses of SL, so it’s a good fit for the iLRN conference. (It looks as though AltspaceVR is primarily being used for social events associated with the conference through the Educators in VR group, according to the AltspaceVR Events calendar.)