Giving my first tech talk in VR

Back when I was a kid, “VR” meant VRML. It meant worlds of walls and crude buildings that we could walk through (and create ourselves, with a bit of XML), accompanied by visions of a future where the 2d browser web was replaced with 3d mazes of websites. That VR dream died for a while, but now VR is back — and maybe the time is ripe for it this time. The hardware is more affordable and the experiences are more fluid, and things like Kinect are making VR into more of a reality for the average consumer.

Today, I got the chance to give a talk inside VR — AltSpaceVR. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t even sure what that really meant until today. I didn’t know what to wear (would it matter?), how I’d see my slides, who my audience would be (would I see them?).

I showed up at the AltSpaceVR office and quickly found out all about their world of VR. I stuck an Oculus Rift on my head and found myself peering curiously around a beautifully landscaped room and playing with 3d games like “flappy dragon” that I could conjure up in front of me.

Then I got outfitted into a Perception Neuron outfit by one of the engineers, and calibrated my avatar by going through a series of very-very-still poses. We logged back into AltSpaceVR, and presto, I had arms! And fingers! I started casting spells all around the room. Somehow, my arm movements felt far more epic now that they were replicated by my robotic avatar.

When it was almost time for the talk, I teleported into the presentation room and found myself surrounded by more robotic avatars. Occasionally, an avatar would speak, and their avatars’ colors would pulse in time with to their voice. I convinced one of them to connect their LeapMotion so that their hands would start working (albeit disembodied from their arms), and we high fived. Success, my first interaction in VR!

Finally, the part I was nervous about: actually giving the talk. I’ve given talks in many situations — conferences, classrooms, Google Hangouts — but never in VR. I’d never given a talk while outfitted in body tracking gear and staring out at a room of robot avatars. But hey, there’s a first time for everything.

The AltSpace VR team projected the slides onto a large screen in the virtual room, and stuck a copy in my personal display to look at as well. The slides were running on inside a browser (a modified Chromium).

To go from one slide to the next, I had to maneuver my cursor over the “next” arrow and click that tiny hotspot. I got through my first slide transitions okay but I got stuck on my 4th and I had to call for help from anyone around me in the real world, hoping that there was indeed anyone around me. Their product manager came to the rescue and became my personal arrow clicker. Phew!

I often like to survey my audiences early on in a talk, to both get a feel for who I’m speaking to and to make it interactive from the get-go. In the real world, survey answers come in the form of raised hands. But in VR, most of the avatars didn’t have raiseable hands, since that requires more costly hardware. So I looked around the room to see heads nodding and wiggling instead! I loved seeing that I did have a way to see their survey responses, even if it wasn’t what I was used to.

As I continued through my slides, I realized that I had no way of telling how engaged my audience was. Were they nodding off in their VR headsets? Were they actually listening to anything? I can usually tell that by looking at the faces of my audience, but none of the consumer VR tech out there syncs facial expressions, so I couldn’t use the usual signals.

I pulled out an old trick that would at least wake up any snoozers: DANCE PARTY! At the start of each section, I asked everyone to dance with me. I showed off the power of my VRed arms with disco moves whilst other avatars showed how creatively they could use their head movements. :)

Avatars would wander around throughout the talk — at one point, a particular avatar was just a few virtual feet away from me. Surprisingly, this perturbed me nearly as much as it’d perturb me in the real world. I stopped the talk to ask them to give me more virtual space and breathed a sigh of relief when I had my space back.

After the talk, we all talk a group selfie together (and yes, I think selfie is a functionality that’s built into the app) — I’m the one fist pumping, of course:

Was it the best talk I’ve given? No, not by far. It’s hard enough to give an engaging talk when I’m able to utilize my full body for expression, and it was a challenge to try to compensate for that in the virtual world. If I was going to give another talk in VR, I would create slides that were more visually engaging themselves — with animations or videos embedded — and I would pick one of my more entertaining talks. I’d also go for a shorter talk, because I don’t know how long people can stay engaged with an expression-less face.

I’m excited to try other formats inside VR besides talks, as I feel like other formats would benefit more from the VR space: AMAs, office hours, group hackathons, project fairs, demos. I also think it’d be great to go outside of tech. I’d like to try meditation inside VR — both private meditation in my own carefully crafted space and group meditations, with all of us reciting mantras together. And what about role playing or improv inside VR? Now that would be a fun experiment.

Thank you to AltSpaceVR for giving me the chance to give my first tech talk inside VR! See you in VR land?

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