I love events and have spent the last several years traveling to support and speak at many different industry events. At their core, they’re all about creating memorable experiences and bringing together communities to learn, network, and build relationships.
Over the last few months, with work-from-home orders preventing in-person collaboration, we’re all more hungry for connection than ever. Webinar attendance has spiked around the globe, and systems have crashed trying to handle the throngs of online attendees to first-time virtual events.
With so many events going virtual and Zoom fatigue becoming the norm, we’re now seeing event organizers push past traditional 2D platforms such as On24, Microsoft Teams and Zoom in an effort to provide fuller immersion and engagement. The tools they’re using fit into two categories. I call them 2.5D and 3D.
The 2.5D platforms provide interfaces that mimic real-world environments complete with stock people or avatars. They are a step above the Zoom’s of the world but ultimately fail to pay off the promise of an immersive environment. They aren’t avatar driven and are simply a more interesting looking skin for 2D content. Some examples of these types of platforms include vFairs and MeetYoo.
Surprisingly, these platforms tend to be more expensive than the newer, 3D platforms that are currently emerging within the virtual event software space. vFairs starts at $8K per event and goes up from there, and many 2D and 2.5D platforms don’t offer “one and done” pricing; instead you need to enter into an annual contract in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Above: This vFairs screenshot is an example of 2.5D, a static, representation of a 3D space that houses 2D content. It provides no mobility, avatar control or other 3D functionality.
Not your mother’s 3D
3D platforms on the other hand, offer true immersive spaces. They are created from 3D building blocks and allow for free movement within a virtual space. You can access many of these platforms not just with a VR headset but also via multiple devices, including smartphones and laptops, allowing for differing levels of immersion within the same event or experience. This helps make your virtual event strategy future-proof as more and more users move toward VR solutions for at-home work and productivity. 3D event platforms include MootUp, Breakroom, LearnBrite, VirBELA, Engage, AltSpace, and a handful of others.
Most of these platforms offer a monthly subscription rate, instead of an annual contract, as they are eager to onboard users. Breakroom’s monthly rate starts at $500 for 50 seats and increases based on the number of attendees. VirBELA offers an entire virtual campus that can accommodate 25,000 or more users starting at $2,500 per month. LearnBrite offers subscriptions starting at $99 per month that are VR ready and include voice and video conferencing and a full library of 3D assets, no coding required.
Above: The Opal Group is hosting a series of Data Analytics events in the 3D event space, MootUp. The events are fully integrated with Zoom and accessible via smartphone, laptop or any VR device on the market.
3D gaining momentum
By all reports, these up and coming 3D virtual event platforms have seen a sizable increase in demand since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to Alex Howland, President and Co-founder of VirBELA, the platform “has seen more than a 653% increase in virtual events and 12x increase in monthly active users.” The CEOs of MootUp, LearnBrite, and Breakroom also say they’ve experienced at least a 100% increase in demand since March.
VirBELA recently hosted the Laval Virtual World annual event on its platform, registering over 11,000 attendees from 150 nations and featuring six simultaneous session tracks with over 3,000 meetings. (See video of the experience above.) These numbers dispel the myth that VR-ready 3D virtual events can only support a small number of users. In fact, these newer 3D platforms are cloud-native, as opposed to some long-standing enterprise tech companies that still house everything on-prem. Relying on cloud giants like AWS and Google Cloud means scaling is “not an issue,” according to Breakroom CEO, Rohan Freeman. The ability to scale has gotten quite a bit of attention since the SAP’s system crashed during its virtual annual customer event last month. According to Freeman, his 3D platform recently supported millions of concurrent users during a national TV campaign rolled out across India.
3D makes memorable experiences
So why 3D? It’s all about creating those memorable experiences. Recent research has shown that users in virtual and 3D environments have improved learning outcomes and increased memory retention due to spatial presence. Embodying an avatar and engaging in a 3D world ignites areas of the brain typically reserved for physical encounters. It also allows for more self-expression through the ability to customize and animate avatars and peer-to-peer interaction.
If you are trying to recreate the benefits of in-person networking and create 1:1 connection during your virtual event, then 3D is a great option. I hosted a virtual “end-of-term” party for my University of Oregon students in LearnBrite as a small consolation for not being allowed to meet in-person. The event was a huge success, with students sitting around a virtual fire pit, enjoying virtual champagne and chatting well past the event had technically ended.
These spaces can be decked out with pre-built or custom 3D content. No need to meet in a standard office when you can meet virtually by a stream, on a beach, or even on the surface of Mars. 3D platforms are also offering integrations with the standard 2D event platforms. LearnBrite and MootUp are Zoom clients, allowing speakers to login and present in Zoom while the presentation seamlessly livestreams into the 3D environment. I recently attended a full-day, Data and Analytics Summit where a dozen back-to-back speakers seamlessly presented their slides and webcam from Zoom into a full, 3D auditorium.
You can also import and share product specific, 3D content. Complex machinery, consumer electronics, automotive, and other models can be imported into the 3D virtual space allowing for remote collaboration and discussion. With no more show floors housing the latest physical product, 3D event spaces are a real alternative allowing customers to interact with a product at home.
Above: Dell’s Virtual Reality Classroom of the Future experience allowed potential customers to engage with 3D models of their products within a virtual classroom.
Headset vs. no headset
While each 3D event platform has varying levels of support across multiple devices, most do boast support for VR headsets. The number of users accessing these platforms via a headset are small at the moment, but it remains an important point of differentiation from the 2.5D and 2D event platforms that don’t offer any VR support.
Above: Breakroom initially developed low-poly objects, pictured above, that could load across almost any PC, smartphone or tablet. They are now in the process of updating their graphics, pictured below, as bandwidth and streaming capabilities have improved.
For most virtual events, consuming the 3D, avatar-driven environment on a 2D device like a laptop or tablet, may be preferable, as VR headsets can be heavy, cumbersome, and too uncomfortable to wear for hours at a time. There needs to be an extremely compelling reason to use a VR or MR headset, like collaborating on 3D content or watching a 360-degree film or livestream.
Platforms like MootUp, LearnBrite, and Breakroom have been designed specifically with accessibility in mind and support a wide array of devices. Social VR platforms like AltSpaceVR and Engage were built for VR headsets and offer a more robust, VR-first experience, with limited capabilities on laptops and smartphones. Understanding the needs of your audience and how they plan on accessing the event is an essential first step to choosing the right 3D event platform.
A call for creativity
With Zoom fatigue setting in, now is the time to innovate and think creatively about building customer-centric, memorable virtual experiences. The tools and technology are only limited by our lack of imagination and fear of trying something new. Be bold. Be part of the XR revolution. There’s no turning back.
Coming off the heels of moderating an extremely engaging VR panel at the Immersed Conference in Portland, I’m excited to be covering a similar topic at Augmented World Expo this year.
May 21st I’ll be taking the stage with several VR colleagues to discuss how VR and immersive technology is providing positive psychological benefits. The panel discussion, entitled ‘A New Reality: Empathy, Embodiment and Empowerment in VR’ will highlight the latest work and research being done in this emerging field.
The panelists will include Donna Davis, Director of the Strategic Communication Master’s program at University of Oregon, Dr. Pam Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, Jerri Lynn Hogg, Director of Fielding Universities Media Psychology department and Robinne Burell, Chief Product Officer at Redlight Mobile Innovation.
AWE 2018 will feature hundreds of expert speakers and sessions featuring the latest developments in the AR and VR space. The two day event runs May 20th, 21st and 22nd and tickets are still available.
If you are planning on attending the event, please be sure to stop by my session, Thursday at 4pm and say ‘Hey’. I’d love to meet you!
Fran gracefully glides around the grand ballroom, sparkling pink ball gown flowing at her heals and the firm grip of her son’s arm around her waist. They are surrounded by friends and family as they elegantly move around the room in perfect harmony, looking as though they must have practiced for hours. Fran is celebrating her 90th birthday in style, and although Parkinson’s disease has limited her mobility over the last decade, today technology is enabling the joy of movement she knew when she was 20.
“Memories are real. If you’re dancing in a ballroom in a virtual world or in a ballroom in Portland, Oregon — you were dancing in a ballroom. It was an experience,” Donna Z. Davis, Ph.D, the director of the strategic communications program at the University of Oregon. She witnessed the power of virtual environments to heal and help real people like Fran. “This is not about replacing, it is about augmenting. It’s technological augmentation in a way that provides for them beyond the capabilities of the physical world. So somebody without legs or with Parkinson’s can go dance. Someone who lives in isolation can have a social life.”
Power to heal
Davis has been working in the virtual reality space for over 10 years. The last three years her focus, through the support of a National Science Foundation grant, has been studying embodiment in VR spaces and the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Her findings along with the results of several other studies indicate that there is a link between our physical selves and our digital selves, or avatars. What we see our bodies do on screen can positively impact what our bodies can do in the real world. Davis was first introduced to this phenomenon while working with Fran and her daughter, Barbie. As Fran enjoyed navigating her virtual world with ease, she began to have the confidence to do more physically demanding tasks in the physical world.
After meeting Fran and Barbie, Davis and her colleague, Tom Boellstorff at UC Irvine, were invited to join the newly formed virtual support group for others suffering from Parkinson’s. They have been meeting virtually for over seven years and Fran has developed a following of support group participants that refers to this healing power of virtual reality as “the Fran effect.”
Although Davis primarily works with the “ability diverse” or those who are challenged in both visible and invisible ways, she believes the benefits are not limited to this population. “How many of us are trapped inside a body or a place that doesn’t allow us to really live our lives in a way that we feel capable of? These technologies may open those doors in really exciting ways.”
Above: Donna Davis, far right, celebrates Fran’s 90th birthday with members of their virtual support group
New technologies, new opportunities
While much of her work over the last decade was done in a 3D environment on a 2D screen, Davis is pioneering therapeutic applications in the more immersive social 3D platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity. While this new medium provides increased immersion and freedom from physical limitations, it also provides additional accessibility challenges. Currently these platforms don’t rely on text chat and instead use voice technology as the primary means of communication. This makes it difficult for someone with speech and hearing impairments to use the platform successfully. Hand controllers coupled with physical movement are also required to navigate these virtual spaces, which is impossible for those suffering from debilitating physical conditions. However, Davis and her research partner and cultural anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff, have been working with the teams developing these platforms to help ensure they support the needs of their users.
Above: Tom Boellstorff (center) and Cecii Zapien helps Cody with a headset and controllers in order to experience the 3D virtual world. They are accompanied by Linden Lab executive, Bjorn Laurin.
Davis and Boellstorff recently visited Linden Lab, Second Life’s creators, to try to co-opt these new immersive tools for the unique needs of their research population. They were accompanied by Cody, a man who has suffered from severe physical challenges with cerebral palsy resulting from a tragic childhood accident. Cody can’t move his hands or arms which would typically render hand controllers useless, however Cody’s caregiver placed the ‘hand’ controller on Cody’s foot allowing him to experience, for the first time, his real body ‘moving’ his 3D avatar’s arms.
Caught on film as part of an upcoming documentary entitled “Our Digital Selves,” Cody’s joy of experiencing this type of movement was undeniable. The kicking movement required to move his avatar’s arms not only produced a feeling of joy, it is also a vital part of the work he does on a regular basis with this physical therapist.
Davis believes making something seen as a chore, such as physical therapy, a joyful experience can be a powerful motivator. “Immersive environments can help motivate patients to do painful or difficult physical therapy movements. Make it something that’s fun, make it joyful. How do you create an opportunity that gets people to go beyond themselves in healthy and supportive ways? Using the virtual world for physical therapy can help create that opportunity.”
Above: Donna Davis and Cody during their recent visit to Linden Lab.
Since Davis began her pioneering work almost a decade ago, there have been many additional studies linking virtual reality with healing outcomes and pain management. Several studies have focused on using virtual technologies to help with chronic pain and conditions such as ‘phantom limb pain’ often experienced by amputee patients. One such study determined that VR can “trick” the brain into believing the patient is using the limb in the virtual environment, thereby alleviating the sensory conflict of not having use of the limb in the real world. The increased sense of presence and immersion afforded by newer VR technologies can often be enough of a distraction to help patients manage painful conditions without the use of highly addictive pain medications. This fact has made some established medical institutions in the US slow to ratify the new methods for fear of alienating the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.
Given the amount of new research showing the potential of VR to heal both emotional and physical conditions, it’s no surprise that many innovative VR companies not bound by traditional methods have stepped up to help find new solutions to old problems. One of the most successful applications is the use of VR to treat PTSD. Virtually Better, a company that Dr. Skip Rizzo and his team out of UCLA founded, developed a simulation that would re-create the conditions that Iraq war veterans experienced. “Virtual Iraq” proved successful, helping treat over 70 percent of PTSD sufferers, and that has now become a standard accepted treatment by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They also support applications of VR-based therapy for aerophobia, acrophobia, glossophobia, and substance abuse.
Another U.S.-based company, Firsthand, has developed a platform to help manage chronic and acute pain. The 3D immersive, game-like environment uses bio-feedback sensors to help patients regulate physical activities, like breathing, in order to calm the mind and promote mindfulness. Their website claims that “patients can use a technology solution for pain management with no pharmaceutical side effects.”
Physical and occupational therapy is another field that benefits from the advancements in VR technology. Companies like Mindmaze and VRHealth offer platforms that help practioners’ administer various types of VR physical therapy treatments. MindMotion, developed by Mindmaze, creates virtual environments therapists can customize for a patient’s preferences and needs. These virtual enhancements motivate them to be more consistent and get the most from their prescribed exercise programs. The platform also allows for real-time multisensory feedback, so patients can monitor their own performance.
There are also several companies building platforms to help therapists and counselors leverage these new technologies within their private practice. Limbixoffers clinicians a ‘plug and play’ VR therapy solution and Psious offers a monthly subscription package that includes VR therapy training, a platform enabling VR sessions with clients, marketing support and client session reporting.
We are just beginning to understand the true potential for immersive, VR environments to change how we think and feel. There are those who fear the negative implications of these hyper-real environments and worry they will replace the physical world. Davis sees the virtual world not as a replacement for the physical world but as an enhancement. “That’s the thing about our work that I love most, is that we’re forcing people to look at the positive potential for virtual reality — maybe not even as positive, but normative — as opposed to the dystopic narrative most commonly represented.”
Davis believes there is great potential for VR to help revolutionize the health care, retail and fitness industries but more importantly she is hopeful it will transform our values as a society. VR social spaces can help remove cultural, racial, gender and economic barriers that prejudice our interactions in the real world. “When do we start to value somebody’s mind and heart? I think in the VR space you begin to place a value on their mind and their heart rather than physical beauty because those are the things that are driving your interaction with that person.”
Next week, I’m thrilled to be attending the Immersed Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference is a two day event focused on immersive technologies like VR and AR and how they are impacting the world around us.
I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on empathy, empowerment and embodiment in VR featuring my colleagues and friends Donna Davis, Tawny Schlieski and Jerri Lynn Hogg. You can learn more about all the conference sessions, buy tickets and join the community on the Design Reality website.
Stephanie Mendoza, an immersive media artist and enthusiast will also be participating in the conference. She will be teaching a workshop on WebVR and PIMG will be demoing on the exhibition floor along with other Portland VR/AR startups. She was kind enough to answer a few questions on her experience with VR, Portland and becoming a dragon!
1) How long have you been in Portland? Why did you decided to stay here?
I’m coming up on 4 years now, I arrived in May 2015 to take some front end web development courses over the month. Then I got a job in Seattle- didn’t like Seattle very much so I went to Canada for a month and a half to visit old friends. I’d also made enough money selling drawings at an art auction to visit Portland again before going home (also my car was there). The intention was not to stay, but to spend two weeks with the friends I’d made and then move back to Texas.. well my student loans kicked in and automatically took money I didn’t have, leaving me with a balance of
(-$600) and no gasoline to get back. I would have been homeless, had I not been taken under the wing of a Cyborg Anthropologist I got nerdy with at a Hackerspace in NE called CtrlH. That really started it all.
2) Describe the creative and emerging tech scene in Portland? Could it be recreated elsewhere?
Portland is pretty special, though I’m not sure if I’ve traveled enough to know exactly how unique it is. The city is easy to navigate, creative and there are many programs that support practicing artists. I can meet people from almost every socioeconomic/cultural background, and not be restricted by notions of cultural bias, so long as a common interest is pursued. This place is incredibly community oriented, it seems that each group has about one or two degrees of separation between its members, that tend to just get together en mass, and hack at whatever they are doing.
3) What latest tech trends excite you the most?
GDPR. I’ve been an advocate for data protection since I was in 8th grade and social media was taking off. Specifically, what gets me excited is GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe which comes into effect on May 25th- most importantly, it states that 1) Right of Access: Users have full access to all of the data a company has on them as well as how it is being processed, and 2) Right to Erasure: Users have a right to have that data removed. Failure to comply could lead to sanctions as high as 4% of annual worldwide turnover, so it’s not toothless.
Additionally, people are finally listening to me about dumping Facebook, and caring about how companies treat their user’s data. I strongly believe that this is the most important trend to evangelize in our modern tech climate.
4) How did you get involved with social VR? Which social VR platforms do you hang out in and why?
I started in Anyland, a social VR sandbox where anyone could make anything with unlimited resources (well, until their GPU choked on the particle effects). Anyland was and is still an incredibly powerful tool for rapid prototyping of ideas that just can’t exist yet in tangible space, but who’s presence we can prepare for in a simulation.
I’m in VR Chat a lot now too. I got sucked in to watching a bunch of Ugandan Knuckles videos over my VR deprived trip to visit family in Mexico, and spent months making highly detailed avatars (also converting my Anyland one). I still think I prefer the open and immersed creativity of Anyland, but I’ve been spending much of this year exploring VR Chat.
5) What do you see as the BIGGEST potential for VR, AR and immersive technology?
VR is an incredible tool for exposure therapy and it shields us from own own biases about identity when avatars come in to play, exposing something deeper. One of the first things that happened when I started developing for VR in Unity was loosing my fear of heights, which was pretty bad at the time and hasn’t returned since. I did the same for my stage fright, where I simulated the old New Relic office and practiced in there with my slides in front of a fake audience of zombies, tigers, and men in blue suits. This all gets amplified when it involves social learning and observation.
6) Do you feel large corporations such as Intel and Nike have played a role in the technology innovations happening in Portland? What role should corporations play in promoting innovation?
Bike town provides a good model of accessible equipment. Also Intel sponsors a lot of events like hackathons and small conferences/meetups (that feed us starving tech artists, many of whom us won’t admit to barely having enough to feed ourselves), so keep doing that!
7) Do you feel immersive communities and social VR can help empower and heal people or do you feel they will have more of a negative impact?
Both. Back in Anyland the crowd was mostly west coast, with a good amount of midwestern conservatives, and a few Europeans and Asians sprinkled into the mix. It was a small but tightly knit community. We actually managed to build bridges between the two wings of American ideologies (liberal redditors, and 4chan trump trolls) using the unlimited creativity Anyland provided us. We could coexist extremely well in a simulated utopia, void of any ‘economy’ other than a gifting one based on creative capitol. It sounds unrealistic, but also not impossible. I think this kind of thing can work wonders helping people get out of the mindset that everyone has to have a job, in a rapidly approaching post-work world.
That being said social VR can be a serious trigger for those with preexisting conditions who have PTSD from combat or assault. People in these spaces can be ruthless, but there are definitely ways to deal with them as an individual without getting the mods or the company involved. Trolling in real-time is a double edged sword and often the worst offenders are terrible at comebacks, which in my experience changes the game. Most of the other users will also have your back, you just have to have some thick skin, which comes with experience. It can be harrowing for a first timer.
8) How has spending time in social VR communities impacted you pesonally?
I have finally realized that yes, I can grow up to become a dragon; nine year old me is very pleased. I feel like anything is possible now, and I can test new inventions people come up with, before they manifest in ‘reality’. I wind up having these extreme experiences that can only be described as if they were a dream, since often it involves shapeshifting, and strange worlds/contraptions that exist as pure imagination manifested by data. Also shapeshifting was always my go-to superpower so thats a huge incentive drawing me back to the territory.
9) Currently VR is really only accesible by a small number of users – when do you think VR will hit mass adoption and why?
Probably once the next generation of headsets comes out, just like any other console or ‘gaming’ hardware. Go to goodwill and you can see the stacks of unwanted Wii’s and Xboxes, and on the shelf below them, every variety of mobile VR headsets.
10) Which local start ups or local innovators do you feel have the most potential? Why?
So I can’t answer this question in the context of financial potential, because the places I see the most creativity come out of, and have the greatest community impact, are also the places that earn the least and are burdened the most- especially during this current administration which has dramatically cut funding for the arts nationally. Take Open Signal and Enthusiasm Collective- they provide a vital service to the Art and Tech community, and without places like that many VR devs/artists would not have had opportunities to get started.
I have high hopes for our local hackerspaces as well, I want to give a shout out to CtrlH for the amazing things they’ve done, providing equipment for local creators, and bringing together a variety of interesting meetups- Dorkbot (robotics) and Exploit(information security) come to mind, and they have even supported Portland Immersive Media Group(VR) when we needed a venue.
11) How did you get involved with the Design Reality community? What will your upcoming presentation at the Immersed Conference cover? Who do you feel should attend this conference and why?
Luck. I met Joshua at Kent Bye’s house when Kent had a pre-release of Google Earth VR. A few weeks later I got an email about the new VR meet up, noticed that he was charging for tickets, and promptly wrote a concerned letter. I knew that charging ANY amount would immediately discourage most of the artists that I knew were currently participating in VR from attending, since even a small $5 fee is detrimental as costs add up when you include parking/MAX fares, and that resulting $10-15 is a grocery budget for the week. Yes we are that economically challenged. I worried that this would result in further homogenization of the group, creating the beginnings of an elitist VR scene in Portland. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and Joshua completely understood what I was talking about. He is still charging for tickets, but there are both volunteer and scholarship opportunities for those of us who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise.
I feel like this conference is for anyone who wants to get the full scope of what Portland VR has to offer. I will be teaching a workshop on WebVR and PIMG will be demoing on the exhibition floor along with other Portland VR/AR startups.
What causes immersion? As the digital revolution rages on, technology has been both blamed and lauded for capturing more and more of our attention. We have been given the tools to tell stories in new and exciting ways, access to data that has never been available before and the ability to connect to a fully realized digital universe. As digitally connected citizens, we are constantly bombarded with incoming messages and have become adept at tuning out endless amounts of ‘noise’. So what then CAN capture and keep our attention? An array of augmented reality and virtual reality applications or ‘immersive media’ experiences are being developed across various sectors and engage users like never before. The immersion grid has been developed to help compare and contrast these applications and predict how likely they are to be truly immersive. (more…)