IEEE VR 2020 proves VR conferences are here to stay

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Taking IEEE VR virtual worked in large part because it utilised the very technology it was focusing on

Quick read

➨ IEEE VR 2020 used integrated video conferencing, video streaming and online chat platforms in a custom-hosted version of the Mozilla Hubs shared virtual world platform
➨ More than 2,000 people attended the online event in March
➨ Other events going digital include the VRAR Association’s global summit

The story

The benefits of holding conferences in VR are becoming clearer as the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic continues to force the cancellation of physical events and international travel all but ceases—and one recently held example demonstrates just how useful immersive technology can be in times of both crises and normality. The IEEE Computer Society Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR) was supposed to be held in-person in Atlanta, Georgia, but then the pandemic took hold, lockdown orders were issued, and national and international travel restrictions were put in place.

Kyle Johnsen, IEEE VR co-chair and associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, said in an announcement that conference chairs had spent the past year doing traditional conference planning, including visiting venues, mapping out rooms for demos, organising shuttles and much more standard work, “until about two to three weeks before the conference date when the event changed to all-virtual”.

Blair Macintyre, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing and IEEE VR conference co-chair, continued: “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 three to four months of virtual conference prep in less than three weeks.”

VR to the rescue

Taking IEEE VR virtual worked in large part because it utilised the very technology it was focusing on. Macintyre said: “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.”

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 five-day all-virtual experience, held from 22 to 26 March, integrated video conferencing, video streaming and online chat platforms into a custom-hosted version of the Mozilla Hubs shared virtual world platform, with participants 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.

Macintyre explained: “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.”

The virtual conference “checked all of our boxes” from an academic standpoint, Johnsen continued. “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.”

Environment and diversity bonuses

Virtual conferences bring environmental benefits, too. Macintyre, who is a proponent of reducing academia’s carbon footprint, said: “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.”

There’s also the fact that holding a conference online significantly increases its accessibility. The figures speak for themselves. The more than 2,000 attendees of IEEE VR 2020 hailed from 58 countries, a significant increase on 2019’s 32 countries. Additionally, 27% of this year’s participants were female, up from 17% of last year.

With IEEE VR 2020 done and dusted, the society is in an excellent position to improve on the virtual conference model for future events. 

Macintyre said: “New event models utilising 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.”

“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.”

It will be interesting to see how businesses respond to the rise of virtual conferences and whether a preference develops for them over traditional, in-person events. Right now, they are very much on everyone’s agenda—and the response has increasingly been positive.

Online and virtual events to look out for include the VRAR Association, which is taking its global summit virtual in June. AWE has scheduled its online conference for the end of May, and businesses should take a look at XR Immersive Enterprise 2020: Global Online Conference, set for early next month, to discover and learn about enterprise use cases for immersive tech.

Image: IEEE VR current and past conference chairs gather for a virtual group photo at IEEE VR 2020