Case Study: IEEE Virtual Reality Conference Goes Digital, Embraces VR Tech to Deliver Online Conference Experience
For over 26 years, the IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) has presented groundbreaking research and accomplishments by VR pioneers—scientists, engineers, designers, and artists—and its continued impact was on track with its 2020 event set for March 22-26 in Atlanta, GA.
With their expertise of VR, this year the organizing committee planned to make their conference more accessible and sustainable, while also showcasing VR technology, by planning a virtual component for IEEE VR 2020. They prototyped the technology at prior events, and intended to use VR as a small experiment with online attendees at IEEE VR 2020. And, as with all IEEE VR conferences, its proceedings were marked for publication in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library and the Computer Society Digital Library.
In light of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, the IEEE VR organizing committee made a proactive decision in early March to convert its conference to an all-virtual event. With a short window to manage the shift from in-person conference to an all-virtual experience, the committee decided to transition all planned elements of the program to virtual equivalents, while attempting to preserve audience engagement and participation.
In the development of the all-virtual platform, the team did not want to only use video calls to screen-share presentations webinar style, an approach employed by many virtual conferences. While this approach works well for research paper presentations, it would exclude most of the interactive and one-on-one content that is unique to the in-person conference experience.
While planning the conversion to the all-virtual event, the priorities of the organizers were as follows:
- How can we leverage virtual worlds and VR when appropriate?
- How can we include all the accepted content?
- How can we create social spaces and opportunities for serendipitous interaction?
The committee wanted to try, as much as possible, to stay true to the original technical program of presentations and invited talks on VR and 3D user interfaces, poster presentations, and the interactive demo and 3D UI content. Authors would virtually deliver presentations, and be supported finding novel ways of sharing interactive experiences with conference attendees participating in real time via the online platform.
Next Generation Virtual Reality Technology
The team of conference organizers, with their collective expertise of VR, started by collaborating with the Mozilla Hubs group, who worked two weeks nonstop on the conference, which included their creation of video co-watching, poster, demo, contest, and social rooms in a customized version of the Mozilla Hubs – hubs.ieeevr.online.
Teams of students from labs at both the Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing and the University of Georgia College of Engineering, led by their respective conference co-chairs, did a tremendous amount of specialized VR work.
A call for volunteers across the globe garnered more than 50 students, professors, and hobbyists, who help set up, managed, and moderate the online community. Bottom line: the collective team completed about three to four months of virtual conference preparation in less than three weeks, delivering production at a broadcast level that looked like it took months to create.
The five-day all-virtual experience integrated video conferencing, video streaming, and online chat platforms into the custom-hosted version of the Mozilla Hubs platform, delivering an immersive online experience to attendees. Participants were able to watch and discuss the conference talks together; take part in interactive poster, demonstration, and 3DUI contest sessions; and create and share their own social and birds-of-a-feather sessions, all via web browsers on whatever platform they were most comfortable (from phones and tablets through standalone VR devices).
The conversion to an all-virtual event greatly expanded the reach, accessibility, and diversity of the VR audience:
- Over 2,000 virtual registrants compared to the planned 800-900 planned for the in-person event.
- Attendees represented 58 countries compared to 32 countries represented in 2019, resulting in 26 additional countries this year.
- Additionally, 27% of this year’s participants are female, up from 17% of last year.
Another positive outcome of the fully virtual event includes a reduced carbon impact, since travel wasn’t required, there was no waste resulting from food service, signage, or packing materials, which would have been generated traveling to and utilizing a physical venue.
In the future, different modes of conferences will need to be used, including multi-sites combined with virtual that require less travel while still supporting the one-on-one interactions that make conferences so valuable to advancing research in all fields. Future conference models can’t go back to business as usual, nor can they just rely on purely virtual events.