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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Immersive Learning Research Network Conference in VirBELA and AltspaceVR, June 21-25, 2020

iLRN 2020, the 6th International Conference of the Immersive Learning Research Network, is running in VirBELA and AltspaceVR from June 21st to 25th, 2020, one of many real-life conferences that have moved to social VR and virtual worlds because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s conference theme is Vision 20/20: Hindsight, Insight, and Foresight in XR and Immersive Learning:

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:

VirBELA is a virtual world I have written about before on this blog, which is very similar to Second Life (Here is a link to all my blogposts tagged VirBELA, including this one).

A view of the iLRN main stage in VirBELA

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.)

The iLRN 2020 Expo Hall in VirBELA

If you’re interested, you can register for free for this conference via EventBrite (I got in free through an early-bird ticket special I wrote about here). I plan on attending a few presentations in between working from home for my university library system.

See you there!

FRAME: A Brief Introduction to a New Browser-Based VR-Compatible Virtual World, by VirBELA

FRAME is a brand new product by the company that brought you VirBELA, a separate browser-based virtual world with VR support, built with open web technology (WebXR) instead of Unity (which VirBELA uses).

When you visit their website, instead of a flat website homepage, you are loaded directly into a three-dimensional space, a tutorial room which explains what FRAME is meant to be used for. You navigate using the mouse and the arrow keys of your keyboard, or you can click on the small VR icon in the bottom right-hand corner and put on your VR headset.

You are invited to create an account, using your existing Google, Microsoft or Facebook credentials, or create a new FRAME account using your email address. After registering an account via email, I got the following welcoming message:

Thanks for signing up for the FRAME beta! Frame lets you quickly create immersive meeting spaces and presentations and then invite others in with a link. No download or install needed – right from a browser on desktop, mobile, or VR.

We encourage you to create your own FRAMES and let us know if you have any feedback if you use it to hold your own meetings or presentations. We have a Discord group where you can ask us questions, give feedback, interact with the FRAME user community, and stay up to date. Check it out!

FRAME is evolving rapidly, and as such you might find occasional hiccups in our service. Please keep in mind that FRAME is still in beta and uses some cutting-edge technology. 

Finally – if you need a version of FRAME with custom features or designs that you aren’t able to build yourself in FRAME, we would be happy to discuss that with you. 

We’re here to help if you have any questions or thoughts, and we can’t wait to show you what’s coming next for FRAME. 

Gabe and Dan,
The FRAME Team

You can browse through the FRAME NEXUS user documentation to get up to speed. There’s even something called the FRAME ACADEMY to help teach WebXR, with online lessons and projects, and even hands-on workshops!

If you want learn more about FRAME, I invite you to visit their website, join their new Discord server, or follow the project on social media via Twitter and Facebook.

I will be adding FRAME to my ever-expanding list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds.

The Billion Dollar Real Estate Company Using VirBELA For Its Virtual Offices

eXp realty
Image source: eXp Realty’s Facebook page

A real-life real estate company is using VirBELA for their virtual office space, the Oddity Central website reports:

eXp Realty, one of the world’s fastest growing and most successful real estate companies, has become famous for not investing in any actual real-estate, opting instead for virtual reality offices that allow its agents and brokers to interact and socialize from anywhere around the globe.

Glenn Sanford, eXp Realty’s founder and CEO, founded the company a decade ago, soon after the real estate market collapse of 2007. He couldn’t afford to buy or rent office space, and figured that focusing on a system that allowed his team to work remotely would help the company avert disaster, should another real-estate crisis occur in the future. So eXp Realty relied on services like Google Docs and spreadsheets, project management solutions like Trello, and communications app Slack to help its workforce work together without actually sharing the same space. But three years ago, the company took this remote collaboration system to a whole new level, by building a campus complete with offices, meeting rooms, auditoriums, lounges and more, in virtual reality.

Now, I do take issue with calling the VirBELA platform “virtual reality”. You can’t actually visit the eXp virtual offices in a VR headset, which is my definition of social VR. I would call VirBELA, like Second Life, a “virtual world” rather than “virtual reality”.

Apart from a small leased space in Bellingham, Washington, that acts as a headquarters but is actually just a storage space full of file cabinets, and a few empty locations in places where physical addresses are mandated by law, eXp Realty only exists in the virtual world. The real irony is that the whole purpose of the company is to help people buy and sell real world properties, like houses and office buildings.

“The virtual campus is a big part of our growth engine. If we were to have the constraints of physical offices, the growth we’ve had simply wouldn’t be possible,” Scott Petronis, chief technology officer of eXp Realty, told Singularity Hub.

This is quite the marketing coup for VirBELA, which is a much smaller platform than Second Life. Historically, Linden Lab has found it difficult to attract and retain real-life business clients in Second Life. I’m sure that they’re not too happy that they missed out on providing virtual world services to a big, profitable company like eXp Realty.