Editorial: why we should all explore VR platforms with a community
"We must be willing to attend events and try things in VR that wouldn’t normally interest us. The best way to find the will and energy to do that is to do so with trusted peers." - Michael Barngrover (XR Crowd / ZeroEvents)
The XR Crowd and XR4Work are collaborating to host their own virtual conference event on 7 July 2021 in the Virtuworx platform. Both are XR communities that explore multiuser VR and virtual platforms for a range of use cases. Communities like ours play important but sometimes hard to measure roles in the wider industry. As we prepare to jointly host our first conference, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the purpose and value of XR professional communities, and what drives me to continue seeking out new VR platforms and subjects to explore within the XR Crowd.
On 7 July 2021, yet another virtual conference will be held to bring XR professionals together for presentations and networking. But this one is unlike many others held in the past year and a half in that it is not the virtualization of a physical conference but one born wholly of two virtual communities, the XR Crowd and XR4Work. These two communities are representative of the transformation that the XR industry has undergone in this era of pandemic, and their collaborative hosting of the “XR Community Meet, Greet and Explore” conference event encapsulates the industry’s change at the grassroots level: less geographically constrained, more hands-on, better informed.
This is particularly true of the XR Crowd, within which I organize events that aim to both validate and challenge assumptions about what social and collaborative VR platforms are capable of. Like most organically cultivated communities, the precise origins of the XR Crowd are a bit hard to nail down. A few years ago, the regular attendees of XR conferences and festivals, such as Laval Virtual, VRDays, and VRHAM!, coalesced around a series of Whatsapp groups that facilitated after-hours meetups and networking where discussions continued from the exhibition floor. These early XR Crowd meetups emerged as fountainheads of new information and projects. When those physical industry events began to cancel in early 2020, the community came together to initiate a weekly event series, entitled ZeroEvents, to explore and validate the leading multiuser VR and virtual platforms in order to find ways to virtualize them and preserve the social touch points of our industry.
Since April 2020, I have organized the ZeroEvents, which has grown from exploring multiuser VR platforms to including immersive workshops and expert panel discussions as parts of its programming. The natures of these events and the community that they serve have evolved extensively from their inceptions, becoming more open and accessible, more oriented toward thought-leadership and debate, and more practically experienced in hosting rather than simply attending virtual events.
Organizing events for any significant length of time is a burden, but for me these events justify the effort. They provide me the right amount of social obligation to try platforms and event models that I might not otherwise bother myself with. Organizing events for peers rather than VR novices provides the pressure I need to ensure I spend effort enough to not look like a fool when others look to me as an authority of knowledge. Being an indie XR developer and UX researcher provides me the confidence to debate the actual and potential merits of platforms with a diverse cast of VR creators, enthusiasts, influencers, and natives in search of new insights. ZeroEvents has been a mechanism for growing my own knowledge, and feedback over the past year plus has reassured me that I’m not the only one. Participating in the XR Crowd and ZeroEvents has helped some to find work and others to find projects and partners in the industry. More significantly, I have watched members of our community go from being VR enthusiasts with limited technical abilities to designing and launching their own VR projects based on the knowledge shared within our community. Enthusiasm for XR is great, but the practical knowledge to create and communicate is something that I value more. The XR Crowd has increased the capacity of its members, which is the successful achievement of its raison d'etre.
If I have a motivation to continue organizing ZeroEvents aside from my own personal betterment, it would be to combat superficial punditry in XR. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine, not because finding yourself saying little of substance on a stage isn’t relatable, but because it should be more rarely observed in practice than it is. More often than I’m comfortable with, I find myself publicly musing on hypothetical VR scenarios only to be informed that such scenarios are in fact well known to some that operate in very different contexts than I do. It’s incumbent upon those of us who intend to lead discussions to incorporate practical insights rather than merely hypothetical. This sector changes quickly, and communities like the XR Crowd provide experts with opportunities to refill the ammunition of their expertise. Our Whatsapp debates are eclectic and often lively; people aren’t afraid to disagree. It’s rewarding to see members develop their voices and hone their messages over time and then later see them speak at conferences.
Being a Whatsapp-native community has the consequence of being less accessible to outsiders, despite efforts to mirror some of our conversations on our Discord server. Exclusivity is part of what makes discussions between particularly active conversants so rich; it removes a bit of the noise that is a feature of public chats and establishes a space where ideas can be shared to gestate communally. It makes the XR Crowd what it is practically, but it also risks making the group exclusive to the point of irrelevance. That’s where public events like panel discussions and our upcoming conference come in; they afford opportunities for our members to share their unique and expert insights with audiences and peers beyond our community. For example, the 7 July conference is a chance for people like Martn Demmer and Tim Deussen, both thoughtful and long-time contributors to the community, to share lessons learned from wrestling with challenging technologies such as volumetric recording and motion capture in XR. It’s a chance to give a Lance Powell, an expert’s expert in social VR, the spotlight for a talk about power asymmetries in VR education. It’s a chance to collaborate with another community, in this case XR4Work, from another part of the world with whom we share a lot and yet are distinct enough to also gain a lot from networking and just hanging out together in a virtual space.
Ultimately, being together virtually when physical isn’t an option is why our community exists now in the way that it does. It’ll likely revert a bit to its original nature when physical events become normal again, but even in that case our virtual elements are likely to persist. We hail from many locations and we will always want to meet together casually and frequently rather than just at a handful of major industry events. The value that the XR Crowd and communities like ours offer is the camaraderie and peerage that it nurtures among XR professionals of disparate backgrounds and locations. Virtual and VR events make that possible for us, and I think we’ll be meeting together in virtual spaces for a long time. I look forward to another year of meeting new people and sharing new ideas at ZeroEvents. I hope that our conference on 7 July becomes the first of an annual series of conferences with collaborators like XR4Work. Maybe we could even try out a new hybrid model for 2022. This is the age of excitement for what is and what will be possible with immersive technologies.
The XR Crowd and XR4Work’s “XR Community Meet, Greet and Explore” virtual conference event is free and welcomes all those in the XR industry or interested in it. Join us on 7 July for presentations, networking, and booths. The event will be held on the Virtuworx platform, so check the Facebook event, eventbrite link, or sign up and register directly on Virtuworx for details and schedules. I want to offer a big thank you to my counterpart Rick Casteel of XR4Work and to Virtuworx for making this event possible for us.