With many countries once again – or still – in lockdown to battle the spread of the novel coronavirus, event organisers are in a tough spot. Bringing many people together to shake hands in one venue is something that seems ancient history. But instead of cancelling the whole thing, these events with strong ties to Amsterdam decided to pack up their stuff and move to another world: the virtual one.
VRDays now (partly) in VR
VRDays Europe is an event about immersive technology in business, science and the arts. Last year over 2000 professional attendees came from 60 different countries for its conferences, trade show, art exhibition, funding market and matchmaking—all under one roof.
When the pandemic hit, that became unthinkable. So Benjamin de Wit, founder of VRDays, and his team had to rethink a way to deliver on their mission to unite, inspire and drive forward the XR Community. “What we are doing today is organising the first decentralised festival. VRDays Europe, held from 4 till 6 November, is taking place all over the world. The physical world and the virtual world. “
The result is a mix of events, both on- and offline, to immerse visitors in the world of XR. A festival map leads them passed a paper magazine, over 20 offline satellite events around the globe, live streams of conferences and digital platforms. As one can expect from VRDays, virtual reality is an essential component.
De Wit: “I believe that immersive technologies will help us to create valuable experiences when we come to the end of the physical possibilities. The tech we have on display at VRDays are being put to use to create new experiences. For instance, with Oculus, we were able to present the Church of VR, with a selection of the best VR works, in VR for a wider audience as ever before.” The Philosophers’ Salon, A VRDays staple that used to be displayed in an actual yurt, will also be presented in VR says de Wit.
Women in AI meet up in a virtual world
Women in AI is a nonprofit global do-tank that organises various educational and awareness-focused events to bridge the gender gap and mitigate bias in the AI domain. This year they planned an ethical leadership and business acceleration program for women entrepreneurs in the fields of AI, Data Science, and Machine Learning, consisting of 42 physical events. COVID-19 forced them to rethink those plans.
“At first, we moved to Zoom for our meet-ups,” says Eve Logunova, Women in AI Ambassador. “The main global annual event – WAI Summit – was delivered via Hopin. While the organiser can perfectly orchestrate the event in those environments, we still craved that physical touch and something more gamified for the experience.” That’s where they decided to switch to privacy-proof VR platform VirBELA.
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Logunova: “Our WaiDATATHON for Sustainable Future was the first event to organise in VirBELA’s VR. It was a so-called test drive. The experience impressed the participants and guest speakers and made us sure of moving all of our events there.” The virtual world, which attendees navigate with their avatar, adds a level of immersion not found on other platforms, says Logunova: “The gamification provides an ultimate experience that takes away the pressure of ‘staring’ into a screen which in most cases, drains the energy.”
Privacy and inclusiveness built-in
The platform adds some nifty features that are important for Women in AI. First one is the ability sometimes just to shut the door and keep people out, says Logunova: “The design of VirBELA has privacy perimeters for confidential discussions. You can lock doors when you enter a room and share your content without the risk of being heard. Some of our upcoming events require privacy for discussing business and financial plans.”
Another essential feature is the inclusiveness. “When creating an avatar, you can pick from various shades of skin colour and a great number of accessories, including a hijab. It is easy to create your avatar as gender-specific or nonbinary. Giving our members and guests the choice to be who they are, creates an experience of freedom.”
Odyssey Momentum runs meetings on game-engine
Odyssey Momentum is described by founder Rutger Zuidam as an ‘online mass collaboration arena’ where complex 21st-century challenges are solved. The event, held from 13 till 15 November, features more than 2.000 participants and 105 selected teams that will work together to build solutions for 21 challenges. These challenges are tied directly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, have a global societal and economic impact, and are set by large corporations or governmental bodies from all over Europe and the US.
Due to COVID-19, Odyssey had to find a solution for their vast get-togethers. They decided to create a new type of event that embraces the potential of the internet. By combining game design with creative meeting solutions, their event will focus on collaboration while seemingly take place in outer space. “It’s not VR,” admits Zuidam. “But it is still utilising the gaming engine Unity 3D. Anyone can run it from the browser.” No goggles needed…yet.
The immersion that Odyssey Momentum is creating this year is only the beginning, Zuidam admits. “We’re mostly interested in AR for future editions. It may enhance physical presence and blends online and offline worlds. Wouldn’t you agree every office and home should have some kind of holodeck?”
Will these events return to the real world?
Will these events ever return to the physical world and hold events in Amsterdam? Well, it’s hard to say goodbye. But if it is up to these organisers, the virtual world will be a permanent location for a large part of their events.
“These events would probably be related to the launch and the closing of a year, and some mid-seasons get-togethers,” says Logunova, who will keep welcoming visitors to Women in AI at its virtual office in VirBELA in the meantime. “We all miss that human touch and socialisation in person. VR becomes the closest to that experience, and I am confident that in a few years from now, we will see VR no longer as an innovation.”
Van Zuidam is quick to set the record straight: “The event was in Groningen.” But even so, Odyssey Momentum will not return to the city in the North of the Netherlands. “We can already see partners, teams and other participants organising their offline Odyssey events during Momentum, supporting their goals. Odyssey Momentum is the online experience that connects everyone across the globe.”
Benjamin de Wit is also not planning to say farewell to the Amsterdam canals: “We never leave. However, I think we will not go back to VRDays Europe IN Amsterdam. We are VRDays Europe FROM Amsterdam. Maybe it will be enough for some relations to see each other every year, or every five year – if in the meantime you can stay very well connected through immersive technology. The savings you can find in this scenario are tremendous. It is about finding the balance between the physical and the digital”
Featured image: VR meeting in Virbella