Now that I have a VR headset at home I’m both enjoying VR experiences and I’m exploring social interaction in VR spaces. I’ll write more about the pros and cons of VR meetings vs Zoom later, but right now I want to share this recording of a conference panel we organised in VR about VR narratives, for ELO2020 last week.

ELO2020 (the annual conference of the Electronic Literature Organization, held last week) was the best online conference I’ve seen so far. Mostly the success was due to open access archives of all recorded talks and papers, Zoom keynotes and panels that were only accessible live to the registered participants, but which were recorded and put online rapidly, and an active and well-curated Discord server with social spaces (“the pub”), spaces for newcomers and people looking for mentors or mentees or collaborators, as well as dedicated channels for discussing specific talks and topics.

My colleague Maud Ceuterick and I suggested the VR panel when the conference organisers asked for pitches for creative online activities when the conference moved online. We held the panel in AltspaceVR, a VR-based social space that is best accessible using a VR headset, though you can also visit in 2D from Windows computers. We invited five speakers who all either had experience making narrative art and stories in VR or (and) were doing research on VR narratives. You can read full details and watch the recorded session on the rather excellent archival website that the UCF library provided for ELO2020.

Although we’ve done small meetings with our research group in VR, this was our first experience with a larger meeting. We had about 20 people from the ELO participate, in addition to the speakers, and about 20 people who had just seen the event on AltspaceVR, and so had never heard of the ELO before, but were interested in VR narrative. That’s a really interesting and unusual combination for an academic conference, but it seemed to work really well, with most of the audience sticking around for the full 90 minute session. There were certainly some things I’d like to try doing differently – perhaps we could have chosen a more adventurous space rather than a conference auditorium, for instance. And it would have been interesting to have some kind of activities to engage all the participants more, although the Q&A was great.

The experience did really make me want to try doing more academic meetings in VR. A group that hosts a lot of events is Educators in VR, and I’ll be attending some of their activities. Oh, and I attended a live performance of The Tempest a couple weeks ago in The Under Presents (Samantha Gorman and co’s latest project) which I loved – I want more of that.

Obviously VR has accessibility issues. It doesn’t work for everyone (if you are blind or have light-sensitive epilepsy it’s not exactly ideal) and headsets are still expensive. But the quality is getting better, and the price of headsets is slowly coming down, and there are way more interesting things to do with it now than a few years ago. Like attending a play with live actors, or going to debates and parties.

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