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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!

VRTO 2019 - Virtual and Augmented Reality World Conference - photo by Christian Bobak

VRTO 2019 – Roundup and Highlights

The 4th annual VRTO – Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo wrapped up in early June in Toronto. The event brought together provocateurs, digital media harbingers, inventors, developers, and best-selling authors to examine the future of culture, society, humanity, and how we can collectively work together and leverage immersive technologies for the betterment of ourselves and the world we live in.

VRTO 2019 Graphical Banner

VRTO is a juncture where startups and local content creators, established distributors, investors, and international media are introduced. Networking opportunities for our exhibitors like our VIP lounge and reception enabled a number of fruitful connections, and several companies in attendance were previously inspired and met at a VRTO event before getting where they are today. The success of these relationships and partnerships are made possible by way of the community’s support and the support of our sponsors, exhibitors and media partners. And a big thank you to TMAC -Toronto Media Arts Centre, Dames Making Games, and Gamma Space for providing us with a new home.

Leaders from Intel Studios, Ubisoft, Entertainment One, The Venture Reality Fund, CTRL-Labs, Globacore, Pimax, Cream 360, Dark Slope Studios and many more descended upon the city to explore the current state of the industry and discuss where we go from here.

The event garnered 30+ pieces of coverage which included an article in Forbes and the Canadian debut of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast. The event received over 2.5 million coverage views from a readership of 1.13 million and earned over 550,000 social media impressions.

An early highlight of VRTO 2019 was Indie VR Dev – The Game Show, hosted by Dustin Freeman (Escape Character) featuring Blair Renaud (IRIS VR), Martin Bradstreet (Martov Co.) and Andre Elijah (OPIATS) – photo by Christian Bobak Copyright 2019

Founder and Executive Director, Keram Malicki-Sanchez explains how he approached this year’s show, “It’s about pausing for a moment, like one of those volumetric John Gaeta bullet-time sequences, and taking stock in all that has come before, and how to communicate that to as many people as possible in a way they can understand.”

By focusing on the human element and the recalibration of the industry there were a couple of themes that came to light during the 3-day symposium.

Human Connection & Community

Often mistaken as a solitary and isolating endeavor, VR is a tool that has the ability to draw a community together. Virtual Reality provides users a sandbox or playground that is completely unique to the medium. With over three million downloads and 3.2k Twitch viewers, VRChat has become one of the most successful Virtual Reality apps.

Syrmor Shiraz–who calls Toronto home– is an embedded journalist in VRChat and unearths intimate, personal stories from users across the globe. His engaging videos have earned him a following of over half a million subscribers on YouTube. “A lot of your physical identity is stripped away and a purer version of yourself comes forward,” Shiraz says. He discussed how a boy who was unable to go outside because of a debilitating disease found solace in this virtual community.

Shiraz was joined at VRTO by DJ Soto, a Christian pastor, who recently performed a baptism in VRChat before making international headlines. Looking to reach those who are excluded from real-world congregations, Soto’s virtual outreach has lead him to members of the community who have been forgotten or physically unable to attend a service.

Watch “Syrmor’s Gonzo Journalism in SocialVR” at VRTO

Spatialized media is redefining how we are able to communicate and connect with one another. Voices of VR host, Kent Bye and Keram Malicki-Sanchez explored how companies are developing immersive experiences that will excite and engage attendees. “Disney Imagineers have been collaborating with immersive theatre creators and world-leading live action role players for their new Galaxy’s Edge experience,” says Bye. “Experiential designers are blending the principles of game design, immersive theatre, role play, and architecture in order to create immersive entertainment at the highest levels of mass culture,” the podcast host continued.

Kent Bye at VRTO 2019
Kent Bye discusses the future of Virtual Reality at VRTO 2019

In addition to developing platforms that aid in the creation of communities, Virtual Reality provides a complementary layer of interaction that was previously unavailable to those who were already established. The proliferation of the eSports industry has produced a dedicated community of players and spectators. This year’s VRTO featured a panel discussion that explored how VR will become a gladiator in the eSports arena.

“Rhythm Games should not be underestimated. We’re seeing lots of YouTube influencers and personalities who play Beat Saber on Twitch” says Jakyo Manor, an eSports consultant and tournament organizer.

“Spectatorship is important in eSports. Virtual Reality would allow fans to experience and interact with the players on a whole new level, this is where the opportunity truly lies for VR in the industry,” Manor added.

Jakyo Manor discusses Virtual Reality's relationship with eSports at VRTO 2019
Jakyo Manor discusses Virtual Reality’s relationship with eSports at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019

While the VR ecosystem is plagued by fractured platforms, the future of the industry’s success will rest on the shoulders of the companies who are able to meet the needs of the consumer.

Blake J. Harris, the author of The History of the Future, spoke about how Facebook believes they have conquered the gaming industry, “but they have not successfully planted the flag that they think they have.” Harris went on to discuss how in the early days of Facebook the platform solidified a strong user-base with the campus community before going mainstream, but the gamers and developers have been overlooked on the current journey. He echoed sentiments from former Oculus VR engineer Alexandra Howland who said, “Facebook doesn’t understand the market they bought into.”

The social media juggernaut–who has invested more into VR than anyone else–will have to reconcile with the gamers and indie developers in order to re-create their earlier successes.

Check out “VR and the Road to Now…and Then” featuring Blake J. Harris, Keram Malicki-Sanchez, and Blair Renaud at VRTO.

Creating For Consumers

While Virtual Reality has demonstrated its success in the enterprise market with impressive results–Walmart, Fidelity, UPS, DHL & more are training millions in VR–the industry has been waiting for consumers to become converts of the medium. With 4.2 million PSVR units sold and 4 million high-end PC VR headsets in the hands of users, Virtual Reality is no longer just flirting with consumers.

Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, sees the launch of Facebook’s latest headset, Oculus Quest as an inflection point for the increase of the at-home user. Games like the indie-darling Beat Saber– which made $20 million in a year–proves that consumers are hungry for VR.

As arcades continue to expand across the globe and provide distribution channels for the media, the question is how do you get customers to return once the “gimmick” of VR has worn off?

On Monday June 3rd, Chennavasin led a panel with three entrepreneurs who have managed to navigate the unforgiving tides of the immersive industry, and have found client work and managed to successfully evolve with the industry. Joined by Srinivas Krishna of Awe Company, Mary Sorrenti of VRGen and Game Pill, and Jonathan Gagné of Masterpiece VR.

Tiptat Chennavasin, Srinivas Krishna, Mary Sorrenti, Jonathan Gagne

Laura Mingail, Senior Director, Strategy & Business Development at Secret Location – an Entertainment One company states, “The most successful experiences are ones that are developed with the range of location-based entertainment consumers in mind. Consumers will not pay to play a game simply because it’s VR. They will pay for an experience if it has an IP or story with mass appeal that they want to step into. But story alone won’t make a hit. It needs to be virtually intuitive to play, and it needs to have a reason for people to want to play it over and over again.”

Laura Mingail discusses location-based gaming at VRTO 2019
Laura Mingail discusses location-based gaming at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera

Nintendo, Star Wars, Terminator have all found success as VR content pieces. And Jurassic World VR became Dave & Buster’s biggest launch in the company’s history!

Chicagoan Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers, spoke about how to increase adoption by respecting that new audiences do not understand the jargon or have the facility to assemble complex rigs often required by VR. They may not understand the UIs that are so familiar to gamers, let alone the buttons on the controllers. She spoke about understanding the Midwest and her experiences in creating inclusivity for gamers of all ages, types and backgrounds.

Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers - photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019
Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers – photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019

Where Content Drives

Many prolific and notable Canadian VR developers and companies were also on hand to share their war stories, insights and successes. Signal Space Lab talked about the interactive 360 video pipeline they developed for Mel’s Wake and Afterlife. Occupied VR shared the winding story of their R&D and growth into one of the world’s most notable VR content developers, including their latest Holy City. Emma Rye is a production by Dr. Hillel Maresky and Shachar Weis–founders of VRAL–that uses Virtual Reality to prepare children and adults undergoing MRI’s without anesthesia, which can cut the waiting time from 8 months to only a few weeks. Tribe of Pan discussed the challenges and complexities of shooting personal, intimate interviews with women about the right to choose…in volumetric capture settings(!), where the length of a take is unknown at the time of capture. These companies and many more – including those supported by the Canadian Film Centre and ideaboost that include Tribe of Pan, Masterpiece VR, or York University’s Friend Generator VR art installation After Dan Graham – were demoed in the activations hall.

Sarah Vick showcases what Intel Studios is working on at VRTO 2019
Sarah Vick showcases what Intel Studios is working on at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera

Speaking of volumetric capture – Sarah Vick, head of Intel Capture Studios, Los Angeles, was on hand to demonstrate their eye-popping volumetric video results. Photorealistic, and seamless captures of dancers, with frills and twirling skirts, and nary a broken seam. Sarah’s approachable style helped to better understand Intel’s Studio’s objective and target audience and expressed how everyone is still learning.

The final day closed with a panel featuring CSA award winner Andrew MacDonald (Cream Digital), David Dexter (SIRT), Imran Mouna (InStage) and Dan Mills (Geogram) moderated by Keram Malicki-Sanchez that explored real world, contemporary commercial applications and adoptions of volumetric capture at all levels of budget and technical implementation – from mobile devices to film production, education to political campaigns.

This round-up is far from comprehensive and we invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel, Instagram and Twitter channels to get a fuller picture of the many powerful talks, interactions and experiences that took place.

VRTO’s logo is “Let’s. Get. Real.” And Toronto’s “little-conference-that-could” continues to win international audiences with its hard-hitting approach for the betterment of this emerging and powerful new medium.

Learn more about VRTO 2019 and 2020 at the official conference site.

Report prepared by Stephanie Greenall
with additional reporting by K Malicki Sanchez

Special thanks to our premier sponsors:
Pandor Productions, CFC Media Lab, Cleanbox, OCAD University, Ontario Tech University, Charles Street Video, and Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre