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VRTO2020 The Flotilla – Final Report

Running A Virtual Conference Around Virtual Reality with Virtual Reality

report written by Stephanie Greenall and Keram Malicki-Sanchez

The VRTO2020 conference is the 5th year celebration of the event created by founder Keram Malicki-Sanchez and his team, including Stephanie Greenall who co-produced the event, Jennifer Chadwick (accessibility officer) and longtime team members Chrissy Aitchison (executive administrator and graphic designer), Joshua Miles Joudrie (tech coordinator and live event consultant). The show has developed an international reputation for testing the outer limits of the new immersive media, and asking the hard questions about the efficacy of the medium of transforming and support the culture, adoption and accessibility, and how it may be utilized across the industrial and private spectrum.

Building Castles In the Sky

Though the COVID-19 pandemic posed a threat to many organizations that suddenly had to pivot online, the VRTO team first took a step back and surveyed the landscape of virtual conference options before ultimately deciding on a multi-platform approach. Through this process, The Flotilla was born. Alluding to the idea that there isn’t one platform to rule them all, but rather that the answer will come by tethering together different spaces, modalities, and people to do what needs to be done.

North Expo hall at the VRTO2020 Flotilla
North Expo hall designed by the JanusXR team at the VRTO2020 Flotilla

JanusXR space for VRTO
JanusXR space for VRTO

Head In the Clouds

The idea, here, was that the various zones of the event would transform, flourish and evolve with the collaboration of the participants, extending beyond Hubs into other spatialized platforms that included JanusXR (thank you Jin, bai, Aussie, Firefox, spyduck and company), Webaverse (Avaer / Adrian Biedrzycki), Altspace (thanks Andy Fidel) and even Second Life (via a special little world designed for VRTO by Melody Owens).

The Flotilla was designed to look like a sky city of Greco-futuristic island linked by magic portals. Each space was circular to foster a spirit of equanimity, collaboration, and intersection, and had no walls or ceilings to create a sense of openness, but not so abstract as to lead to confusion or chaos while affording visually distinct areas for engagement. Additionally, allies and attendees create custom Hubs worlds to whether to the Flotilla, including but not limited to Zachary Talis/Fullbloom from Rochester Insititute of Technology, Matthew Gantt for Trinity Square Video, SM Sithlord‘s Metahood, and Adrien Onsen from Construkted Reality.

Here is a quick explainer video VRTO put together just before the show kicked off to help make sense of it for a wider public:

Participants also experimented by bringing in or modifying their own avatars and objects and this expression of creativity culminated into two “Machinima” challenges wherein the participants were given certain requirements that had to be included to tell a story using the spaces of the conference. These short stories were then screened in the Virtual auditorium to much delight. See the results in the highlights section below.

Creating a Truly Virtual Event

It couldn’t have been a more poignant turn to take a Virtual Reality conference into virtual space. Moreover, it was time to put the money on the table, or as Voices of VR Podcast host Kent Bye put it – to “eat our own dog food.”

The event asked its already registered attendees, who had intended to fly in from Australia, Iran, Mexico, Spain, Ukraine, and China, to instead embark on an experiment that would ultimately span 30 days.

Building on mountains of feedback from the “first wave” events, VRTO noted that there was a) no need to run a traditional 3-day timeline, now that hotels and flights did not factor in the equation b) that there was no need to constrain the visual 3D context to traditional orthogonal space. At the same time, such spaces serve to create focus, scope, context.

So Keram and co-producer Stephanie Greenall, hired T. Shawn Johnson – an experienced 3D architectural modeller, to help them create their low poly, custom designs for the WebVR conference halls, meeting spaces, avatar closets, and art galleries.

VRTO 2020 Flotilla Northwest Hall
Moreover, the producers consulted with many industry leaders, including the aforementioned Bye, Galit Ariel, Liam Brosa, Kathleen Cohen, and many others to understand the frustrations, challenges, and opportunities in hosting an international conference in a spatialized digital context.

Art Event at VRTO2020
Art Event at VRTO2020

The team settled on three platforms on which to build the Flotilla:

  • Whova: Offering a combination of community building options, gamification for engagement, and on-demand video, the app provided a hub for attendees who purchased a Streamer Pass.
  • Boosted Private Discord Server with Customized Bots: An application for iterative conversations via theme-specific text, video and voice channels, it was used as a “backchannel” for voice communication within VRTO’s 3D virtual spaces.  A selection of customized bots and an upgraded server provided a significant boost and functionality to the platform’s performance. Attendees were able to unlock their permissions and access via a single command when they entered the platform.

              You haven’t lived until you’ve designed a Discord permissions matrix!

  • Private Hubs Cloud Deployment on AWS: Accessible via browser, mobile device, or VR headsets the Mozilla Hubs platform allowed Pro Pass and VIP ticket holders, speakers, exhibitors and sponsors the chance to engage and explore the conference in custom 3D virtual spaces.

VRTO was among the first to deploy the freshly-minted commercially available Hubs Cloud solution that became public the same month as the show – June 2020 and deployed on Amazon Web Services.

Mozilla Hubs working with Discord
Attendee Kartik shares his single-screen layout for Mozilla Hubs working with Discord

The 30-Day Social Experiment

The event ran 5 days a week, and ultimately featured over 80 speakers. Thought-leaders from around the world who represent and lead such companies as Ford’s Autonomous Fleet, Digital Domain, Cisco, HTC Vive, Metastage, SPINVFX, Pixomondo, Zappar, 8th Wall, among many others joined VRTO2020 at The Flotilla for this month-long social experiment.

Based on feedback, the conference opted for talks were pre-recorded into 15-minute presentations that served as catalysts for further discourse – that were then made accessible via the streaming app and screened in the Flotilla’s virtual theatre–one of the many virtual spaces.

VRTO Flotilla Auditorium Session
VRTO Flotilla Auditorium Session

Every day the VRTO crew learned more about how to improve the user experience, how to organize such an event, and how to simplify the means of access and understanding it. No small feat and one that is ongoing.

Moreover, the VRTO2020 conference featured a micro summit around the important subject of accessibility in all forms. John Avila, David Parker, Moisen Mahjoobnia, and Jennifer Chadwick spoke on various vectors around these challenges and opportunities. This effort also modulated and improved the very conference of which these discussions were a part.

Ultimately the CCMG/VRTO team shared these many discoveries and learnings back to the various platforms upon which they were discovered – Hubs, Discord, Whova, Janus, and beyond.

Behind the Curtain

Running an event like this for 30 days, involved far more than an elaborate tech demo – it was also about keeping things running on time, being transparent with attendees about the limitations and bugs in the existing tech, updating them when new features were pushed to the live deployment and more.

To get a sense of how the real world aspect of running a conference translates to a virtual one, check out this “shop talk” interview between Keram and his A/V lead Josh and seasons event video tech Grumpy Roadie:

The crew was constantly tuning the spatial audio settings for each room and environment: some favoured media volume over spoken volume (in a theatrical context for example, like the auditorium or a showcase room) while others were the opposite. Signage had to be put up everywhere to remind that playback controls were universal, but the audio was on a per-user level. Room permissions were set for individual rooms – some allowed flying or spawning objects, others were far more restrictive to keep order out of consideration for the content or presenter.

All told, there were many subtle or hidden factors at play to foster different forms of engagement, participation and enjoyment of the space.

In order to honour the event’s dedication towards accessibility, Jennifer Chadwick worked directly with Keram to ensure that all sessions were close-captioned or that a written transcript was available and appended to each session on the conference app. In early tests, the team even had speakers use Google Meet for its live captioning that they then piped into Hubs in realtime or streamed into Discord. Keram shared the very complex routing this required with Kent Bye to help underscore what was needed, was required and was lacking. It was not a sustainable or practical model but served as an important brown-boxing experience.

Show Highlights Include:

There were far too many amazing conversations, epiphanies, group effects over the course of the 30 days to cover here, but here are some moments we fondly remember:

Tyler McCullloch and Seb Bouzac presented  Archiact vs. Archiact, a  fly-on-the-wall discussion series that brought attendees inside the real conversations of a VR game studio

Artist Nancy Baker-Cahill joined us to discuss her activist AR work in the Age of Pandemic, & Civil Unrest (Image credit: morocanrugs)

Tom Emrich, 8th Wall discussed how Augmented Reality will save retail.

Rose Barasa, Strathmore University, shared how VR/AR is being used in Africa and how companies can tap into this growing industry. Image: My Africa: Elephant Keeper

We celebrated Canada Day and 4th of July with Andy Fidel’s GetSocial in Altspace

Galit Ariel and Keisha Howard spoke about breaking the mold – using tech and gaming, to teach critical thinking and skills.

Melody Owen shared her avatar’s travelogue and took us on a tour of a series of social worlds.

As part of VRTO’s Accessibility Summit, Moisen Mahjoobnia spoke about preventing and reducing depression by bring nature to people through VR.

Techgnosis, Creativity, Magic

Among the many interesting intersections that arose at the event, one that stood out was a project by Rochester Institute of Technology grad Zachary Talis, who not only showcased his academic poster around Full Bloom an interactive generative music project for VR but also, utilizing the various platforms that The Flotilla was based on to create an integrated and live collaborative group event.

The project called Fervor in Full Bloom used a custom-written Discord Bot to parse text input by the live audience in response to prompts, to generate musical tones that were then piped into a virtual theatre in the Hubs Flotilla. Check out the video from this experience below

Another highlight were the aforementioned Machina contests that produced three short films created wholly by the attendees who participated. Here they are:

VRTO2020 Machinima Contest 1

VRTO2020 Machinima Challenge 2

I Could Have Danced All Night

Another highlight of the events were the extended Q&As that emerged on Discord following any given talk. These were scheduled into half-hour to one-hour time slots following each presentation, providing ample (but never enough) time to unpack the ideas presented in the 15-minute produced videos. It further fostered a richer interaction among all participants who reliable returned for more each day. By not cramming everyone together like sardines, and by using themed days within four-hour blocks over the 30s days, the content could be savoured and extrapolated at a more leisurely and natural pace.

We want to close by sharing some of the public comments that our attendees shared about the show. Thank you all for being a part of it and making The Flotilla what it became!