Thoughts on VR Conferences

I just attended the HR Global Summit, which is the first conference I have attended since the pandemic was announced. It was hosted in a Virtual Reality environment, and it was a very eye-opening experience.

I am not a stranger to virtual worlds, I like many started on BBSs, MUDs, and other text-based adventures before taking the initial steps into the first 3D worlds, I vaguely remember wandering around Meridian 59 when it was initially released in 1996, and then ultimately ended up at MMORPG’s in Azeroth making some of my best friends while playing World of Warcraft.

Virtual worlds and the power to create strong lasting friendships in the digital domain is something I have always known is possible, and strongly believed in that power for virtual teams and that it was only a matter of time before it made the jump over to the business world. Matt Mullenweg’s discussions about how they make it work at Automattic to build WordPress and all the other products is one of the many compelling examples of teams that have made it work.

Even as a true believer I was impressed by how connected to the experience I felt, in many cases, it was the little things that I do not normally notice in their absence were back.

Sound – The natural behavior of sound and getting the context clues of where people are around me is very powerful, hearing a discussion grow louder as I move closer to it transported me to the setting, and the feeling of a conference.

My Avatar – Being able to do some simple customizations to get an Avatar that I thought represented me was a fun process, but also not staring at myself in my video chat window was a world of difference as I didn’t have to worry about that.

Other Avatars – Seeing a crowd of other Avatars moving around, and interacting with space, and watching in the audience gave me a feel of being in the room again, which is very different then a chat commenting.

Technical Issues – Maybe strangely one of the pieces that made it feel like any other conference I have been to, was that occasional bout with technology. Speakers had a few connection issues, sound cutting out, and then the inevitable microphone issues with audience members asking questions. These are a staple of many of the smaller conference room settings I have been in, and something about that made it feel personal.

Where do I think we go from here?

Virtual reality is something that anyone planning an event should consider, I don’t think it will replace steaming events or in-person events (when those are safe again), nor do I think it should. Adding a new medium for connection is great as it allows engagement with a new audience that was not being well-served before, VR is still the domain of an early adopter.

My experience was using the Desktop Client, with a comfortable set of noise-canceling stereo headphones, which should be accessible to anyone. I am excited to see how it can improve with a VR Headset, and the added feedback and reduction of distractions will impact my experience.

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