LOS ALAMITOS, Calif., 02 April 2020 – The IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) converted to an all-virtual event in response to coronavirus concerns, and successfully provided a seamlessly immersive, inclusive, and green experience to its expanded audience of over 2,000 registrants. Taking place entirely online, the event featured all of the content planned for the in-person event, including live-streamed presentations, invited talks, and panels, as well as poster sessions, demos, and a 3D user-interface (3DUI) contest hosted in a social virtual world, deftly utilizing some of the technology that would have been displayed at the conference itself.
IEEE VR current and past conference chairs gather for a virtual group photo.
“In light of the evolving coronavirus situation, the proactive decision was made to convert the conference to all virtual, and we gained the benefits of improved diversity and a reduced carbon footprint, as a result of that change,” said Melissa Russell, executive director of the IEEE Computer Society. “With the expertise and vision of the organizers and the utilization of emerging VR technology, we were able to provide the conference experience that our attendees counted on.”
The conversion to an all-virtual event greatly expanded the reach and diversity of the VR audience: VR 2020 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.
Important environmental benefits were also incurred as a result of the virtual venue change, including reduced carbon impact from no flights. The conference experienced no food waste, as well as no paper waste related to the typical plastic and paper materials used for signage, collateral, and proceedings. Per “Achieving Zero Waste: A Study of 100% Diversion of Convention-Generated Waste”, the average conference-goer generates 61 lbs. of waste at a conference, as opposed to 13.5 lbs. generated at home over the same time period.
Blair Macintyre, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing and IEEE VR conference co-chair, has been a proponent of social change that includes the “academic fly less” movement that encourages the reduction of academia’s carbon footprint. “Environmental science, and similar fields outside of computer science, are farther ahead of us. We need to embrace different modes of conferences, including multi-sites combined with virtual that require less travel while supporting interaction. Future conference models can’t go back to business as usual, nor can they just rely on purely virtual events.”
Macintyre had intentions of making conferences more accessible and sustainable long before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Upon joining Kyle [Johnsen] as co-chair, we agreed to develop a virtual aspect at IEEE VR 2020. We had prototyped the technology at prior events, and we planned to use VR as a small experiment with online attendees at IEEE VR 2020. “
Kyle Johnsen, IEEE VR co-chair and associate professor of engineering at the College of Engineering, University of Georgia, said that over the past year the conference chairs “did the traditional conference planning – visited venues, mapped out rooms for demos, detailed shuttle plans, all of the standard work – until about 2 to 3 weeks before the conference date when the event changed to all-virtual.” Macintyre said, “We were required to suddenly ramp up our virtual experience efforts. We did a tremendous amount of work, relying on the Mozilla Hubs team and the teams of students from both Kyle’s and my labs, as well as the full conference committee and newly enlisted volunteers. We completed about 3 to 4 months of virtual conference prep in less than 3 weeks.”
Johnsen said, “In creating the online platform, we didn’t just resort to the standard video calls, with presentations screen-shared webinar style. As we converted to the all-virtual event, our approach was, how can we do this in VR first? How can we include all the accepted content? How can we create social spaces and opportunities for serendipitous interaction?”
The first academic virtual conference of its kind, IEEE VR 2020 maintained the original technical program of presentations, invited talks, posters, and interactive demonstrations of VR and 3D user interfaces, with authors virtually delivering presentations, and conference attendees participating in real-time interactions via the online platform.
The five-day all-virtual experience integrated video conferencing, video streaming, and online chat platforms into a custom-hosted version of the Mozilla Hubs shared virtual world 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, at ieevr.online.
Macintyre said, “We were able to hold our event as planned. We had conference research demos, the 3DUI contest, all kinds of things – we found reasonable ways to do everything we had planned, even if not everything was as good as being there, in a virtually interactive setting.” Said Johnsen: “From an academic standpoint, we checked all of our boxes; in terms of presenting papers, the publications happened even better this year than previous years. Because the event was all-digital, we made sure the digital proceedings were available at the start of the conference.”
“New event models utilizing virtual platforms hold promising futures. Our hope is that in future years, we’ll have a model that has over 10,000 attendees instead of 1,000, including thousands of people participating worldwide who would otherwise not be able to attend,” said Macintyre. “After completing our first all-virtual event, we’ve accelerated the transition to more inclusive and sustainable conference experiences. Next year’s VR model will be farther ahead based on what we did this year.“
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