GOING VIRTUAL: WHERE DO WE START?
Platform overview for virtual reality gatherings and events
We are now witnessing a major shift that is affecting so many industries and people. It is also an extremely powerful moment in history — we are experiencing events that bring to our awareness how deeply interconnected we are as humans, how much we depend on social interactions, and how important it is to stay connected and support each other. For the majority of us, these times are not easy. It seems that everything that we know as our reality is falling apart. I’m writing this post with one purpose — to ask you to see opportunity where you see only challenges right now.
As a person who has been working in the VR/AR/XR industry for the past five years, I know for sure that we don’t need to be physically in one space to have full social interactions. Unfortunately, this is a knowledge accessible only to those who have access to VR hardware and have experienced the sense of presence in VR themselves, and let’s be honest, there are not so many out there. It’s mostly VR professionals — or VR enthusiasts and early adopters. This post is not for you — you already know all of it. I’m targeting this post at those professionals in other industries, like events, marketing, and conference organizing, who are desperately trying to find something that would provide an alternative for the next two to four to even six months we are all affected.
First of all, credits. This post would not be possible without the #XRCrowd community. It is amazing to see people coming together in times of crisis, and the XR community did exactly that. #XRCrowd community for VR/AR professionals formed an initiative #EmbraceOnlineXR to collect as much knowledge as possible and help bring cancelled events online using all the capabilities of XR industry. I have witnessed the incredible knowledge from this community, conducted a lot of testing myself, and helped to put together the #ZeroEvent as a first group testing for #EmbraceOnlineXR. Here is a summary of what I see so far.
The main takeaway from this week — there is no ONE platform that works for all. But there are plenty of platforms and solutions for different use-cases, and out of more than 30 platforms, I selected those that seem most promising to me. So far, as a group, we tested the following platforms: VRChat, VRRoom, Altspace, VirBELA, MOR, Rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium. We will continue testing and experimentation and report the best practices. But, at this crucial time, I want to summarize what I’ve prioritized for myself to look into, keeping in mind different use-cases and event scenarios.
Experiencing something together
First, it is important to understand why standard 2D communication tools don’t give us the same sense of presence compared to VR and other interactive environments. When we have a Zoom call with 5–10–15 people, we don’t feel that we’re present with them in one space. Yes, we can enjoy the conversation, but we’re still feeling physically disconnected. The sense of being in one space, even virtually, creates the sensation of being socially present with other people in one environment, and it’s vital for social interactions. The fact that you can move around, move your head, turn to another person when they’re speaking, even experience the feeling of social awkwardness that appears when everyone around you is chatting in groups, and you’re not part of the conversation — all these components make full-body social interactions in VR feel absolutely real. You feel as if you are present in one environment with other people; you feel that you are experiencing the same reality, even if this reality is virtual. Audio is super important as well — many platforms support spatial audio, so if you’re standing close to someone, you would hear them louder, like in real life. Also, if you meet in VR with a person you know well, their voice quickly identifies with their virtual avatar, and the sense of real social interaction is even stronger.
Just within this last week, I participated in over ten different virtual events, met new people in VR, and saw old familiar “faces” from London, LA, Italy, France. There is zero chance we would be able to get together if it was not for VR.
So for non-industry folks, here is a summary of my findings and main takeaways. Below you can find a list of platforms that allow you to move beyond Zoom and some of my key findings. These are not ALL the platforms that exist; there are just too many. I selected either those that I tested myself — or those that are the most compelling to me, and I will keep exploring them. But if I missed something essential, let me know in the comments. I’m open to new platforms and testing.
- Virtual events are real. If you haven’t experienced one, don’t think that it’s impossible. BUT! I would not recommend just trying to replicate what we know as physical conferences and exhibitions in the virtual space. A new medium requires a new approach, a new set of rules, and new social interactions. For example, it is currently impossible to gather 1000 people in one virtual room — and the question here is, do we really want to? Or need to? You can not interact with 1000 people at the same time, even in real life. You can communicate with a GROUP. VR events today are best suited to host GROUPS, from 5–10 people on some platforms to 30–50 on average, and up to 300 max, but I haven’t been part of such testing yet and don’t know how it feels.
- You don’t need to think that the audience of your virtual events should be limited to those who have VR headsets — or to those who can virtually attend one space. For the majority of VR platforms, it is possible to livestream to any regular flat platform — YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, or to your website. How many people do you usually have in the conference room? Your camera is still pointed at the stage where you have a keynote speaker with a presentation or a panel discussion. The same can be 100% replicated in VR: virtual stage, virtual speakers interacting in real life as avatars, and a livestream. Multiple platforms allow you to do that.
3. Virtual events require absolutely real production. It is wrong to assume that if you’re producing an event virtually, it will run itself. There are many challenges, and as industry professionals, we are very aware of them, and this is one of the reasons why we are running tests as a community in the first place. We want to learn the protocol because we understand that onboarding speakers, onboarding the audience is crucial for the success of the event — and success of the industry overall. If your first experience is bad, people are not going to get back to that technology and give it another try. VR has already failed to create the best first impression in 2014–15; we understand that we might not have another chance. Expect vast virtual preparations, a lot of technical runs, many volunteers familiar with technology, and substantial pre-production time.
Below I give an overview of the existing platforms with potential use cases. One of the biggest challenges for having fully interactive social experiences in VR is the lack of access to hardware. There are millions of people with VR headsets, but it’s still not enough. That’s why I start with platforms that actually are not VR, or not fully VR, and that can be accessible to wider audiences just from a laptop or computer. But there is a general rule in VR: — the richer and more interactive you want your experience to be — the better your hardware needs to be. Towards the end, I list platforms that provide excellent full-body, interactive social VR experiences, but they require powerful PCVR stations, which limits the audience even more.
There are also two different scenarios to consider:
BRINGING THE PHYSICAL WORLD INTO VR MEANS 360: If we have a physical location in the real world that we want to bring to audiences around the world who’re unable to travel, we need to bring the physical world into VR, and it’s 360VR livestream. 360VR video can be viewed by anyone on almost any platform — from YouTube360 and Facebook360 to any VR headset or laptop browser. High accessibility for the audience results in limited interactivity — you can only look around and feel as if you are present there, but you can not walk or socially interact with each other as avatars. BUT!!!! In some of the high-end virtual environments, it is possible to watch 360livestream within VR collectively, and I’m personally very excited about this opportunity.
However, today I will concentrate today on a different scenario . If we want to host an event, a meetup, a gathering of a group of friends, or a large exhibition/conference in a virtual environment, what can we do? Let’s go platform by platform taking a look at their accessibility and limitations.
Accessibility: very accessible, any PC/MAC user, but no VR
Solution for online conferencing available for your MAC/PC. You need to download VirBELA software and register your avatar, but overall, it’s quite straightforward. During #ZeroEvent test, we were able to gather the maximum number of people in one room on this platform, and it worked for the majority. It was also possible to show different media files and presentations, and speakers can be seated on stage. On the website, it says that presenters tools include .ppt/.pdf/image upload and screen sharing. It also says that VirBELA can support thousands of simultaneous users (we had less than a hundred during our test, which is still a lot for an interactive test). Livestream in 2D is also available, but you would probably need VirBELA tech team support for that. If there is a webVR mode in the future, that would be a very compelling proposition for hosting exhibitions and large virtual conferences.
Accessibility: very accessible, PC/Mac/mobile/webVR
I’ve also been pointed to FrameVR.io, different software developed by the same company as VirBELA. But instead of holding big events, here you can create your own virtual room and host up to 20 people, do virtual presentations with 3D objects and create immersive tours using 360 photos. Frame is accessible for MAC or PC, just as VirBELA, but in addition it has mobile versions via Chrome Mobile or iOS Safari, and VR mode through WEB VR — meaning it’s available on any headset. Still, on the website, they say that Frame works best on Oculus Quest and Rift from Oculus Browser or Firefox. I tried to explore FrameVR and set up a small room, but as with any other platform, there is a learning curve to understanding how to navigate space, upload objects, and create a smooth experience. I will continue running tests in VR and on mobile.
TechCrunched is rightfully asking this week — where is the Zoom of VR?
Well, in fact, there is one, and it’s called Moot. Essentially, what Moot is doing is creating a virtual meeting from any Zoom call. You can join virtual space using your avatar, but you can also add your front camera livestream as well. What’s more, you can share files and videos or your screen. Moot is integrated into Slack, from which you can jump directly into a virtual room. Up to 15 people can be in one room, but I’m not sure how smoothly it runs because even alone in the room, I tried to test different functionality like video stream and adding files, and the more media I had — the more laggy the experience became. Also, it’s not straightforward how to invite people in, as the person that I tried to invite actually joined my Zoom call but didn’t appear in the virtual room. It’s interesting that Moot can be integrated into VR via webVR, but it requires much more testing.
Moot was developed by LearnBrite — a company with big promise to create immersive and interactive training courses in virtual spaces that can be accessed through webVR on any device, mobile, or VR. Some of the functionality that LearnBrite is offering can be used to configure virtual exhibition spaces with 3D objects and programmed avatars as promo personnel. The prices for this software start at $99/month.
Accessibility: very accessible through webVR on any device
I consider Mozilla Hubs one of the most promising social VR platforms for two reasons: it’s webVR, which means that it is easily accessible on ANY platform, including ANY VR headset. And Mozilla cares about privacy — for me, it’s a crucial aspect to consider as we move forward to interacting in virtual worlds. Just imagine talking to another person in VR and having to think, “Who else can have access to this conversation?” We are at the early stages, but it’s important to keep it in mind. Mozilla Hubs is also open source, so it allows everyone to contribute. I’ve visited several social events in Mozilla Hubs this past week. Some worked well, and some didn’t. The first thing to know about Mozilla — it’s current capacity is not suitable for large audiences. They say that one virtual room is limited to 25 people. In my experience, it’s even less. I was part of a VR journalism meetup in Mozilla Hubs, where we had around eight people. We were testing different functionality like taking selfies, drawing, and bringing in 3D objects. The more objects that appeared in the space, the more laggy the experience became. Another significant issue is audio — you need to make sure you are using headphones, otherwise people will be echoing and hearing themselves talking in the background. During the first #ZeroEvent test organized by #XRCrowd, we had over 40 people joining one room. And though some were able to interact, overall — it was a mess. We didn’t know how many people would be joining, and we definitely overused Hub’s capacity.
This week Mozilla Hubs will be hosting a large conference, IEEE VR that went completely virtual because of COVID. They will be using Mozilla Hubs and Zoom, and you can follow what would be publicly available here. I guess they will be having a large number of small rooms with livestreams, and it will be interesting to see how it works. Liv Erickson, Product manager at Mozilla, recently shared her view on social VR and the challenges of replicating large-crowd events in VR.
Accessibility: very accessible, supported on the majority of VR headsets (both 3DOF and 6DOF) plus 2D version is also available.
By far, this is the most established social VR platform. It has been around since 2013, acquired by Microsoft in 2017, and it’s probably the most tested platform for all kinds of social VR events. I attended my first social business event in VR in Altspace back in 2018, and it was the WXR pitch showcase. There are meetups, small conferences, and different gatherings happening in Altspace on a regular basis. You can customize your environment in Altspace and brand it in your own way using Unity, and you can also livestream your event to any 2D video platform like YouTube or Twitch. The most recent example that showcased what is possible in Altspace is the Educators in VR conference that was held virtually across multiple social VR platforms, with about 80% of events organized in Altspace. They had over 170 speakers and more than 150 various events with both virtual audiences inside VR platforms and online audiences just watching livestream. Here is my favorite talk from the conference, Kent Buy’s presentation on XR development:
You can also read a very detailed overview of backstage production here.
AltSpace is saying that it can host up to 1000 people on its platform spread across different rooms, with 40–80 people per room. For the minuses — avatars are quite limiting, and some unpleasant social interactions are possible if you are not coming for a dedicated social event where you know people and organizers.
Accessibility: No PC support, but available on IOS for iPhone/iPad and on the majority of VR headsets, including Oculus Go/Quest/Rift, Steam and PSVR.
RecRoom is a social VR space where users can build their own worlds and, their own rooms. And play games together. I’m not sure that I’ve seen an experience of a formal conference held in RecRoom; I would say it is more of a place to have an informal meetup where participants can hang out, have fun and maybe play some virtual games together.
Here is a Twitter thread where the RecRoom team explains how to create your own room and invite people in. More to come on RecRoom after a group testing.
Accessibility: PC/Mac + VR (Steam and Oculus Go, no Oculus Quest)
Rumii is a social VR app for education and collaboration in virtual spaces. It was one of the platforms chosen during the first #ZeroEvent test by #XRCrowd, as the idea sounds very promising. It is available both on PC/Mac for those who don’t have a VR headset and on Steam and Oculus Go for VR users (no Oculus Quest). Unfortunately, during the test, many users experienced problems getting into the virtual room. More testing needs to be done in order to figure out what the problem was, as the presentation tools look impressive. You can draw on the board, add any types of files, flat livestream, and there are many other options for presentations and shared content consumption.
Accessibility: most VR headsets, including Oculus Go and Oculus Quest.
BigScreen is a social VR app dedicated mostly to consuming flat content together. It’s a virtual movie theater or a place to play games together. Currently, it is aimed at small groups of people — up to 12 users. It is accessible on the majority of VR platforms, including Oculus Go & Quest. Good for small parties and watching movies together.
Accessibility: Windows 10 OS and PCVR headsets, Oculus Quest via Sideloading.
Engage is a virtual training and communication platform. It is not supported on Mac; it requires Windows 10 OS. It is supported on the majority of PCVR headsets (Oculus, HTC Vive, Microsoft Mixed Reality) and Oculus Quest via Sideloading. Currently, Engage has a capacity of 50 avatars per room, with the ability to host more participants in duplicated rooms.
Engage will have its large conference test this Thursday, March 19th. HTC is hosting the Vive Ecosystem Conference for developers in virtual reality, and it will be held exclusively on Engage VR. You can watch a livestream of the virtual event here, and I guess we will have more clarity on the capabilities of the platform after the event.
Accessibility: powerful PC/Mac or PCVR headset
Glue is a platform from Finland that is dedicated to hosting business meetings and events. It is highly interactive, and requires either a powerful PC/MAC or a PCVR headset, with more specifications listed here. The company emphasizes a highly interactive and highly secure co-working experiences, like hosting a board meeting in VR. Expensive corporate experiences in VR — this is probably what Glue was built for.
Finally, the three most highly interactive platforms that currently require full PCVR station (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive):
VRChat + VRRoom
VRChat, in general, is one of the biggest gaming social VR platforms with over 50,000 community-created worlds, as specified on their website. And it’s also the creepiest place, I would say? It is definitely more about gaming, but you can build anything you want on top of VRChat. And that’s exactly what VRRoom did. VRRoom created a dedicated virtual space inside VRChat for hosting social gatherings and festival screenings. VRRoom already has an app that provides festival content in VR, and now they’ve created a social space to have shared viewing experiences. VRRoom was part of platform testing during the #ZeroEvent, and it was the best social VR experience for me so far. Highly interactive, fun avatars, hand-tracking, the ability to talk, move around. The ability to watch flat and even 360 content in a shared environment made the experience really fun. I’m looking forward to testing the ability to have a live 360 feed that can be seen by many people simultaneously in VRROOM. That would be something very special to experience — bridging the physical world and full social interactions in VR. For now, VRRoom is an invite-only space, so you need to host your event or screening there to get access and invite other people to join in. Currently, it is limited to 40 people in the room, and it requires a powerful PCVR headset.
The platform for art in VR. MOR is currently available on PCVR, but hopefully, it is coming to Quest soon. It allows users to interact in virtual worlds created by artists and experience virtual art together. Recently the Kaleidoscope Fund that is supporting Immersive artists hosted their first VR showcase in MOR, and they just announced a partnership to bring more events virtually due to the cancellation of major shows, including SXSW and Tribeca where many art projects were scheduled to premiere. If you are considering having a virtual art exhibition or premiere for your immersive experience, MOR is the platform to use.
This is the most intriguing social VR platform for me. It is a Blockchain-based virtual social world that has its own currency, and you can buy your Virtual Land, build your own experiences inside, and create anything you want. Currently, Somnium claims to have the ability to host the biggest virtual events — up to 300 in one location. It is highly interactive, requires either a PC VR headset or a powerful gaming PC. It has a virtually built Amphitheater and places for stands and conferences with the ability to record/stream the events. Sounds very promising, and I’m looking forward to having the ability to test large-scale virtual events in Somnium sometime soon. Meanwhile, their team is very responsive and supportive on Discord.
On top of social platforms, I want to highlight broadcasting tools in VR. As a person who has been talking to virtual humans since 2018 (thanks MIPTV for the interview), I see it as an exciting add-on to traditional broadcast features. Upload VR, a news website dedicated to immersive news, is actively producing virtual content. This is an example of a one on one interview produced in VR with a full studio program in VR.
Another production tool is FlipsideXR — a virtual animation studio to produce your next podcast or YouTube show from inside VR. Only the creators of the show are in VR; they have avatars and broadcasting tools to set up their own virtual studio. The stream created from Flipside is then broadcasted to the regular audiences via Twitch or YouTube. Interesting tool to kickstart virtual productions.
It is possible to have full virtual events today with varying levels of accessibility (large audiences are watching online 2D stream — limited audiences in VR) and varying levels of interactivity (just watching 360 livestream to full body interactions). The more interactivity you want to be (full body social interactions) — the smaller the audience you can have in one place. Highly interactive environments can be a premium offering for small groups of folks — like for a group of speakers, for example. And their interactions are then live streamed to larger audiences. Not very different from a traditional conference, right? Educators in VR say they had 6000 participants over the course of the 3-day conference with over 150 virtual events. I would say that’s an amazing result considering it was done in February when we all had no limitations to attend physical events. Imagine how high the demand is right now.
That said, producing a VR conference requires A LOT of work and a great team of people. You need to 1) make sure your key speakers have access to VR headsets. Depending on the platform, either Oculus Quest or PC VR is highly recommended; 2) make sure they are familiar with VR. Teach them and make them comfortable, do technical tests and dry runs; 3) do step-by-step onboarding for the audience. Communication prior to the event is key; 4) volunteers and tech support in VR — make sure you have someone within the platform who is familiar and can help your guests navigate it.
It’s important to remember: the opportunity here is massive. All the platforms will be seeing tons of traffic and attention right now. Yes, we are definitely going to hear some disappointing feedback from those who are not ready to deal with some of the challenges as we go through this experimental stage of VR conferencing. But the potential is there — and if we collectively contribute to making VR events a success in the few months, we can keep doing it even when our lives get back to normal.