This week, 1,800 scientists, engineers, designers, and other experts gathered for the 2020 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR). The event brings together people from around the world to examine the latest research and advancements in the area of virtual reality (VR).
Attendees will watch presentations and invited talks and participate in poster and demonstration sessions. It's a typical academic conference in every way except for one significant change this year: it's taking place entirely online, with social events hosted completely in virtual environments.
Blair MacIntyre, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing and IEEE VR conference co-chair, proposed transitioning to an all-virtual event to support social distancing recommendations related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We were planning on a small experiment with online attendees to investigate the use of VR to make conferences more accessible and sustainable. Suddenly we needed to ramp up to accommodate everyone across all traditional conference activities," MacIntyre said.
The entire five-day event convened in Mozilla Hubs, an online platform for remote virtual experiences. IEEE VR marks the first time that a major academic conference of this scale will move online and depend solely on a virtual environment platform, including the social networking sessions that are an essential part of conferences.
The virtual experience merges video conferencing, video streaming, and online chat platforms with a custom version of Hubs. The platform operates in most web browsers, and conference attendees can join whether or not they have a VR device. As with an in-person conference, participants will watch and discuss talks, take part in parallel sessions, and network one-on-one while interacting through avatars.
The conference takes place in Eastern Standard Time. While organizers acknowledge that it will be difficult for people in other time zones to attend, they say there are other benefits of a virtual conference such as better work-life balance.
"One of the hardest things for people to do in this sort of format is focus on the content," said Kyle Johnsen, IEEE VR co-chair and associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering, University of Georgia. "If you're going to a virtual conference, you need to treat it like you're at an in-person conference, at least during the business day. One of the huge advantages is that you still get to tuck your kids in at night, which is awesome, and we don't want to lose that, but you do need to maintain the same level of time commitment. That's the value of conferences."
Change Through Technology
MacIntyre began exploring the use of Hubs in 2019 to address climate change and the carbon impact of long-haul flights to academic conferences. He points out that the carbon impact of a recent round-trip he took to a conference in Berlin, Germany, was higher than that of his own four-person household for an entire month.
He also views virtual experiences as a way of democratizing academic conferences, which are often limited to attendees from well-funded colleges, universities, and companies, while shutting out those who can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on travel or leave their jobs or families for a week or more.
"If we can take something like IEEE VR, which is normally around 1,000 people, and turn it into an event where 10,000 people can attend, we'll have a much more diverse and inclusive event," MacIntyre said.
Now, with recent global challenges of the coronavirus, technology is once again at the forefront of shaping society — changing experiences in real-time. Whether it's attending a virtual reality conference, working remotely, or taking a class online, "technology has the opportunity to help people connect," MacIntyre said.
One recent example — the City of Atlanta has created a $7 million emergency fund to assist those impacted by COVID-19, $1 million of which will go toward purchasing technology to support the city's telework deployment.
While the current crisis has forced an evolution in interacting through technology, MacIntyre wonders about a permanent change in the future. "How many companies will shift to online? How many people will demand the opportunity? It will be interesting to see how we all feel after coming out of this forced remote experiment."
Any long-term technology transformation would mean an entire cultural shift, he said. "The technologies are there and can support remote work and education in different ways, but it only works if there's a commitment."