I had a great time presenting in virtual reality for the 2020 Educators in VR International Summit. Despite being worried about potential technical problems and my typical nervousness before any presentation, it was a great experience! I actually did have my headset malfunction right before going in and had to restart my computer! But despite the challenges, it was awesome to have the opportunity to present to a public audience about the research and design work my team and I have been doing.
Most of all, I appreciated the discussion with audience members where I got to hear about what resonated with people and what challenged them to think about issues in a new light. Presenting in a public space that was not ticketed and could be accessed by people through VR or desktop and with an internet connection has the potential to engage with publicness in research and design in new ways.
One difficult side to this publicness is that you can have people who are only there to be trolls. Publicness brings with it challenges regarding who has access and under what behavioural expectations. If we allow for all behaviours, even violent comments, we make the space inaccessible for those who are targets of the violent, harmful, or disruptive behaviour. This is why public, social VR needs moderation and behavioural expectations. For example, I had one person who appeared to be trying to give me the finger from the front row. Jokes on them because their avatar didn’t allow this. But jokes aside, this can be a real problem. In this case, it was mildly distracting for me. I’m pretty experienced at presenting to a wide range of audiences, so I’m fairly good at dealing with distracting behaviours, including a little bit of hostility. But this might not be the case for everyone, and it might not be the case for audience members.
The organizers for Educators in VR did a phenomenal job of preparing for these kinds of situations. They had a host at every session who introduced the speaker, moderated questions, and removed people from the room who were obviously being disruptive. This allowed speakers to focus on their presentations and meaningfully engage with audience members. I’m very thankful for the moderators because I had a really great time talking with the audience members of all ages. They had many insightful questions and thoughts about social VR, identity representation, and the future of VR.
Another challenge to publicness is the question of who has access to the technology. I was presenting in AltspaceVR which, as stated above, can be accessed using VR or a desktop and and internet connection. When we make claims about increasing access through remote access or telepresence, we need to consider who has the tools. Not everybody has access to home internet or a home computer. I am a fan of public libraries, museums, and educational spaces (universities, colleges, schools) as sites for public technology that could support better access for all. For all of us who work in technology, we need to consider how we can support these spaces to increase public access to technology. In other words, fund and partner with public spaces! At the University of Calgary lab I work with, the Mind, Matter and Media Lab (m3lab.org), researchers Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan and Dr. Pratim Sengupta have been working with the concept of public computing as “public sidewalks” (Check out their TEDx talk). Working with Marie-Claire and Pratim has inspired me to take up publicness in my own work as well and to consider the limits to publicness in order to work towards increased public access to meaningful technological interaction. Technology has the power to connect us, but only if we design for meaningful, accessible, and inclusive connections.
On another note, I really appreciated how presenting in virtual reality meant that I could connect with people worldwide (or at least in time zones where people were awake) without having to travel. I love travelling and I’ve had the privilege to see many neat places in the world while traveling for conferences, but it has its downsides. I find airports stressful. I hate trying to make connecting flights. It’s hard to not get sick when travelling, and hotels become a bit boring after a while. (It’s also difficult to stay in hotels when you have scent-induced asthma). But beyond my personal challenges, air travel is very carbon intensive and I am concerned about how much I contribute to global warming. Of course, VR conferences will not eliminate our contributions to global warming because we have to consider the environmental costs of the data centres and technological equipment required to participate in a VR-connected world. I don’t know what the figures are on these environmental costs and how they compare to air travel, but I hope this information becomes more public as we consider how to better connect people globally while managing our collective environmental footprint. Virtual reality conferencing may be a good option and I’m thankful to have been a part of the first Educators in VR International Summit so that I could see first-hand what this future might look like.
Slideshow of Presentation
Here’s some of my slides from my presentation where I talked about the last 4 projects of research and design work in VR that I’ve been doing since about 2017. Shout out to my amazing collaborators with whom I’ve worked with in different combinations across these projects: Scout Windsor, John Craig, Pratim Sengupta, Sophia Marlow, and Matthew Thompson.