COVID-19 and Santeri Suominen’s Virtual Reality Check

May 6, 2020

Our XR Curator Santeri Suominen decided to “eat their own dog food”, and took a few steps deeper into the world of VR gatherings.

A screenshot from VRChat. Seven avatars are taking a selfie in a room in a skyscraper and looking straight at the camera. There are big windows in the background with a great view of the sunset.

Our XR Curator Santeri Suominen decided to “eat their own dog food”, and took a few steps deeper into the world of virtual reality gatherings.

Santeri organized his first virtual event, FIVR Spring Meetup on 21st April 2020, and visited the three-day Laval Virtual World conference right after. As a result, he decided to write about his experiences of these events, and what kind of thoughts arose from them.

Santeri’s intriguing article is not just about the concrete aspects of a virtual event, but the deeper aspects of virtual reality. How do social roles, identity and action change in virtual reality? Does conventional event structures apply? Do we need them or not?

The article was originally published on Medium, but you can read it below, too!


COVID-19 and my virtual reality check

One of the most often repeated wisdoms in the software development world is to “eat your own dogfood.” While not the most obviously delicious and satisfying menu, it is undeniably necessary in order to learn new things about your familiar surroundings, which can become surprisingly obscure in everyday practice.

I’m a professional in virtual and augmented reality content curation, team incubation and community development. And ever since the current COVID-19 pandemic struck I’ve had a very welcome virtual reality check, which force fed me the most familiar dish once again. Guilty as charged. I have found it shocking and ironic how little time and effort I have given to continuous deep dives into the very basics of my field, and I suspect I’m not the only one who faces this now amid extraordinary circumstances.

This is a great time to withdraw from cursory false activity and into a deeper state of contemplation, own dogfood as the main course. While the pandemic is a global shock and tragedy, it has had some sobering professional side-effects. I’m grateful to be able to face a global crisis from such a frivolous point of view, so please excuse me.

To be honest, I’ve learned that I was close to the same exact situation as many people who are not even (self-)proclaimed experts in XR: It’s a bit painful to admit, but before the outbreak of the pandemic, I had not really attended many, if any, events fully in virtual reality. Only during this year before the pandemic struck, I’ve started personally and with the help of my colleagues, pursuing virtual reality events as a serious thing, not only as a complementary by-product of physical developer meetups we arrange.

So even being someone who considers myself being deep in the game of XR, full VR meetups have somehow felt gimmicky, overly complicated to arrange and void of content worth going that extra mile for. I never had the time and other nonsense. I have had no evidence whatsoever to back this feeling up, just an unexplainable reluctancy to go back to the basics, an unconscious pro hubris.

External circumstances forced me into joining and arranging meetups in virtual reality, and I’m happy to admit how wrong I was on all my previously stated suspicions. VR meetups are, and will be in the future, a fascinating prospect. And definitely not just to simulate conventional meetups. Quite the opposite.

So, on 21st of April 2020, I organised my first virtual event, FIVR’s Spring meetup 2020 and panel discussion on COVID-19’s implications on XR business and finance. And the next day, I visited Laval Virtual World conference. Here are some of my findings from these two events.


Social roles, embodied identity and action in virtual reality: Case Laval Virtual World in Virbela

First a concrete rule of thumb: If there are no stage blockers, which provide access to the stage only for specific users, you better hope there is a virtually physical stage structure in the space to keep the audience off it. This signification of a presenter and staff-only space is immensely important, if a conventional conference structure is wanted.

Virtual meetings have this fascinating dilemma. On the one hand, simulating conventional conference setups in VR feels safe, manages expectations and guides people socially to inhabit a certain role: presenter, moderator, audience member and so on. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that these roles are actually recognised and understood, if the chosen software platform doesn’t have sufficient tools to enforce them.

This is fascinating because in conventional conferences these roles often won’t have to be enforced by external means other than an intuitively understood social contract. Yes, people have a pass around their neck signalling their access and role, but what actually keeps them in check is accepting a certain social role and identity in the structure of the conference situation. Maintaining a good bourgeois reputation is what encourages people to act in respectable ways.

In virtual reality, identity and subsequently, social roles, are reconstructed as representations. We are all just pictures, projecting our ideas of identity onto ourselves and others. An avatar, yours the other’s virtual representation, is just a temporary placeholder for a body and does not guarantee full identification or understanding between intention, actions and oneself. This creates an empty space in our intuitive understanding of a situation.

Wearing a virtual reality headset, which forces us to inhabit an embodied first person perspective in our avatar and observe ourselves and our surroundings from there, helps. But as I was exploring Laval Virtual World in a desktop view on the PC platform Virbela, watching my avatar from a third person perspective on a screen, I felt a significant distance between myself and the world.

I wondered for example if running, which is possible in Virbela by holding the shift button down while moving with the WASD-keys, is socially acceptable in a serious conference environment like this. At least no-one was doing it very much, not to speak of trolling people by running aimlessly in circles (would it be so terrible?), but I could not know for certain if it was because of social discretion or lack of knowledge about movement methods. Understandably, not everyone is fully familiar with locomotion conventions in virtual environments.

Observing my colleagues in the conference confirmed my earlier feeling that there indeed was a significant distance between the users behind the screens and the third-person perspective of their avatars on their screens. I was watching presentations in a room where there was no elevated stage. A stage is a good sign of “hey, this space is for presenters, you just stand over there and watch.” There was just a flat floor where both audience and presenters were on the same level. There was still a presentation area, signified by a differently coloured carpeted area of the floor, but the problem came to be that the audience did not fully understand this and just flooded the stage.

This would not have been problematic at all, as it is a nice change having a conference situation where presenters and audience won’t have to have a divine line drawn between them. But to my slight surprise, the moderators were clinging to a more conventional approach against all odds. I felt a bit sorry, because they had to repeatedly announce and instruct the audience not to walk to the stage.

It didn’t work very well. Despite efforts to communicate this wish, the stage became an amusing moshpit time and time again. People were stacked in a wedge-like formation, pushing from the audience area into the presentation area. So, I repeat: If there are no stage blockers, which provide access to the stage only for specific users, you better hope there is a visible stage structure in the space to keep the audience off it. Other parts of the conference I visited had a stage and as a result, there was no significantly visible flooding of the stage areas.

So depending on what you expect from a virtual event, make sure those expectations are intuitively visible in the conference space, because in VR, sensations are all there is. Admittedly, easier said than done. How we actually perceive these elements is a radically open semiotic question. The other alternative is to make sure there are software features that can control the audience and enforce your expectations.


But why should we stick to conventional event structures in Virtual Reality?

Tracking back to the previous day in VR and Finnish VR Association’s (FIVR) spring meetup 2020 in AltspaceVR, we had a great panel discussion with Olli Sinerma, senior advisor at Business Finland, and Petri Rajahalme, Managing Director at Nordic XR Startups. Dave Haynes from Vive X was also there to give an opening presentation. Our discussion ranged from different financing and business trends to virtual events before, during and after the COVID pandemic.

One memorable insight from Olli, which I definitely agree with, was to question inspiringly and intensely why we actually are still organising events in very conventional ways, even though virtual reality is not bound by any physical limitations we might have with good presentations in a physical setting.

In this instance, we had a presentation stage with microphones in a row, a huge screen behind us and the audience neatly in place in their designated seating area. The audience was also muted until Q&A and stage access was restricted to panelists and moderators. Both are very useful tools for event organisers in Altspace, who appreciate a sterile setting for panel discussions. Usually a good thing.

In the Q&A section, audience members could point and click a “raise hand” function in their user interface to request a say, after which moderators could see these requests neatly organised in their host panel and grant a temporarily amplified voice to them. As many times in virtual reality, it was very ordinary and subtly useful while simultaneously it felt extraordinarily satisfying and cool.

Our audience behaved in a very predictable way in these circumstances, patiently observing the show from their seats and asking questions when their time came. A few extreme elements were climbing the ceiling and some even hacked their way into the external areas of the event space (I have no idea how), but that caused no trouble for us. It was actually very refreshing and fun and I enjoyed this dynamic element in the mix. Audience participation was severely restricted during the discussion, so I was glad to see how they found additional ways to amuse themselves.

The Q&A section was mostly about peers and colleagues, people very well-versed in virtual reality, just expressing their joy of being there and following a panel in VR. Again, this reminded me of the importance of regularly getting high on your own supply, as witnessing hardened VR pros getting excited about such a mundane thing as a Virtual Reality meeting is not really something you see every day. People who are in the biz know this too well: The childlike excitement and joy of trying whatever VR for the first time, which eventually (quite quickly) wears off as it becomes an everyday practice. Here we see it can be rekindled in unexpected ways.

One question really stuck with me, when an audience member was contemplating through a personal experience, how our virtual surroundings determine the level on which we are able to interact with others. They had met in VR with their mother just to hang out. Meeting people in social VR platforms just to talk about ordinary things going on in your life can be difficult if the surroundings are spectacularly obtrusive, so a somewhat calming or even boring setup can be the best option in coffee table conversations. This sounds intuitively true: You can ask yourself if a discussing mundane everyday realities sounds viable when under the influence of reality-altering sensations. Hey look, a flying swine! Double rainbows!

What makes a VR meetup truly inspiring, is the part of free mingling among participants. And what happened immediately after the program part ended was strangely exhilarating. As we lifted the curse of mass silence from upon the audience and removed stage blockers, the crowd responded spontaneously by flooding the stage and sharing a few very nice moments chatting with the panelists.

Some went on to grab microphones, started beatboxing or just ran around the stage in a sudden rush of joy. Unreal. In these moments I felt a great relief of the program finally ending, which also marked the end of restricting intuitive virtual co-existence. Although I feel that the fact that we had restrictions imposed in the first place was probably the decisive element which actually caused this spontaneous outburst of newly realised freedom.

So for future virtual meetups, keep in mind that not only the sheer amount of interactions or features, but also well-planned restrictions of them and subsequent removals of these restrictions should work as a source of inspiration for participants. It provides a supporting structure for channeling creativity, much like in games when the player is introduced to game mechanics and features one-by-one instead of just throwing up everything on them at once.

The remainder of the meetup was spent on a spontaneous group tour in Altspace worlds, starting from a camping area with campfires and marshmellows. While fooling around there just for a while, an Altspace admin suddenly and very welcomingly approached our group and offered, in an ethereally soothing, soft spoken manner, to show us around. Why not!


A screenshot from FIVR Spring Meetup 2020 in Altspace. Its very dark with a moody atmosphere.

Hanging out in Laval Virtual.


What followed was a series of visits to strange virtual worlds. These would all be environments created by the user community, much like in VRChat. We stepped into a portal and started flying through a world of giant glowing mushrooms. This place also had a touching hidden shrine dedicated to a friend of the creator. We honored the shrine with our best possible behaviour and soon moved on through another portal to explore a haunted house with the usual spooky tropes: A scary clown, a dentist’s chair and a lot of old… preserved food cans.

Our last stop was a beautiful grove that had a bonfire in the middle, surrounded by boulders-as-seats, a deer eating grass, a sleeping rabbit, and a two minute day cycle. In the sunny daytime, we could see butterflies, and as the virtual sun started setting, first came the fireflies, then the stars above us appeared. And in about a minute, it was day again.

So I keep wondering, why couldn’t conferences be more like this?

Written by
Santeri Suominen, XR Curator, Ecosystem & Contents, Helsinki XR Center

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