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VR and Conferences: The Difficult Partnership

Using virtual environments to hold business conferences, sales meetings and hearings seems like a perfect fit: no travelling is involved, the gallery can support any number of individuals required, and any and all physical disabilities or hang ups can be left outside the door.

That's the theory. The practice is a little different.

1. The Client-Server Problem

Almost every virtual environment designed for multiple users is at the moment a client-server mofel. Everyone's client computer talks to the central server which works out who sees what data, and returns the updates to everyone. This works fine for ten people present. By the time you get to 50, there is a noticable performance drop. One hundred people is a definite struggle, and two hundred will bring the server crashing down.

In other words, its fine for small conferences, but try and go over 100 people, and you have a real problem. Unfortunately, conference attendance is frequently in the thousands, or even a couple of hundred thousand for the large ones. That's with the difficulty of traveling, finding a hotel, disruption to schedule, etc. Take that out, as you do for a virtual conference, and the big ones would be millions strong… if the technology supported it.

Put simply, until we find a new model of massively collaborative VR architecture, large conferences are simply not going to happen.

2. VoIP

VoIP or Voice over IP is another major problem. If you desire users to talk to one another vocally and not just by text, you immediately vastly increase the data being exchanged, sometimes by a factor of ten! Immediately this cuts down on the number of people it is possible to have present, also by a factor of ten, and is why to date, all VR conferences have relied on just the speaker speaking, and everyone else communicating by text. This also needs to be solved, before conferences can become truly mainstream.

Another problem with voice chat is how do you determine how dar a voice should carry? In many modern VR implementations, voice uttered at one end of a 10km diameter world, can still be heard clearly at the other end. Methods of ensuring voice has limited radius must be developed in order to allow the micro-conferencing that takes place so often at physical conferences. Right now, you frequently simply have to do without it.

3. Presenter Confusion

One of the more humorous problems with a virtual conference is experienced when it is mixed reality, and the speaker is physically up on stage, speaking into a camera that is broadcast into the virtual environment, whilst simultaneously represented by an avatar on the virtual stage. This disparity of embodiment - which one is the presenter - confuses the hell out of most attendees when it is attempted. Therefore, mixed reality only really works if you can establish a medium which uses one focal point or the other, and not both.

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