Virtual reality offers an experience far closer to realising the benefits of in-person interactions, but in practice many people are less familiar with the software and are reluctant to risk an important meeting or event on a system they haven’t personally tried. Our #S4PGxTFOM series therefore also focuses on the online experience itself, so speakers and attendees can try out a virtual reality platform, experience the set-up, interact with others, and see for themselves how it might work for their future talks or meetings.
We intend to use AltspaceVR. You will be able to join with your desktop computer (Windows or Mac), but for the fully immersive experience you will need virtual reality headsets like an Oculus Quest 2 (or a PC-powered VR).
Since VR headsets are not currently widespread, we have secured funding to offer accessibility grants to subsidise the purchase of a VR headset (you can keep the device after the meeting). The amount that we can spend per person will depend on the number of requests and we will apply equity considerations in the distribution of the money. We recommend purchasing the Oculus Quest 2, as this is a standalone headset that requires no other hardware. However, if you have questions about purchasing or headset choice, please reach out to us! We also have a FAQ below, which we will update in the future.
Please feel free to contact the S4PGxTFOM organisers with any questions at the following email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virtual Reality FAQ
How do I join the events on AltspaceVR?
The VR events will be held on a social platform called AltspaceVR. AltspaceVR can be run on a variety of VR headsets, Windows and Mac computers. It hosts a large number of different events every day, from lectures, concerts, games and networking events.
All new users will need a Microsoft account to access the platform (AltspaceVR was recently taken over by MS). If you already have a Microsoft account (note: we do not recommend using Microsoft-linked work email addresses), you should be able to use this to log into AltspaceVR. You can check this by trying to log into AltspaceVR on their website: https://account.altvr.com/users/sign_in
- Create a Microsoft account on the Altspace website (noting that it is advised not to try and link to an existing institutional account)
- VR headset: Download the AltspaceVR app from the Oculus, Steam or Microsoft store depending on your headset (see also instructions here: https://altvr.com/guide-section/get-started)
Desktop app: Download the AltspaceVR app from https://altvr.com (big green button at the top of the screen). The Mac version does claim to be a “beta” edition, but seems to work fine when we tested it.
- Start the AltspaceVR app either on your computer or headset and log in. On the left-hand menu panel, you should see an option for “enter code”. We will provide a code for our events (similar to a Zoom invite, please do not share this publicly) and you’ll be able to head into the virtual event!
It always takes longer than expected to download and log in for the first time. If at all possible, we therefore recommend logging in the day before the event to debug any issues.
Why virtual reality?
One of the main criticisms of online meetings has been the lack of the serendipitous conversations and interactions that are said to often trigger the most productive collaborations from a conference. Virtual reality is one way to tackle this, providing an immersive environment to interact with people online that is as close as can be achieved to an in-person interaction. While this is an obvious advantage, we also feel the benefits of VR into the future extend beyond this application.
With the ability to design any environment, virtual reality has the potential to offer something beyond the in-person experience. For example, when describing the samples being gathered by NASA’s Perseverance Rover, why not conduct your talk in the Jezero crater? (e.g. “https://www.mars.gallery“) Or on the surface of asteroid Ryugu, where the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission recently returned samples of rock? (e.g. https://tinyurl.com/yemwesh9)
3D models could also help discuss the structure of giant molecular clouds, a protoplanetary disc, the interior of the Earth, or visualise the optomechanics of a proposed instrument or telescope. There are also features currently being trialled for VR events in the near future, such as automatic subtitling or live translation that would further lower barriers between researchers. Virtual reality therefore has the potential for a new kind of engagement that would be exciting for both research and education.
Like current online meetings, VR also offers accessibility in removing the need for high travel budgets which typically limit the reach of junior researchers, those from less well funded institutes and researchers outside Europe and US where most meetings are held. The cost of a VR headset is a fraction of the price of a plane ticket.
These are some of the reasons why we thought it would be interesting to based our S4PG event series within a VR-compatible platform.
Do I need a headset to participate in this event?
No! While we are offering accessibility grants for a subsidy on the purchase of a headset, we have selected a social platform that is accessible both in virtual reality and through a desktop or laptop running Windows or Mac OS. While VR will provide the most immersive experience, you will still be able to interact with people and get a feel for the software from your computer.
I cannot log in with my Microsoft account!
We have seen problems with work-based Microsoft accounts (i.e. ones associated with your institute email address) on AltspaceVR. Our best workaround is to create a second Microsoft account and use this for AltspaceVR. One additional trick is to open your web browser in “incognito” mode, so that it does not automatically try to log you back into your original work Microsoft account.
Loading is slow.
The first time you enter the VR event, it can take a little while to load as it is downloading the environment and associated assets to the local device. Once you have visited the first time, subsequent loads will be faster.
Our estimation is that while hopefully most people will effortlessly be able to start AltspaceVR and join the sessions, some will hit unexpected technical issues. This is always immensely frustrating, but it is an inevitable part of spearheading new tech. As a first action, we recommend the old standby of “turn it off and turn it back on”! Here this means completely closing AltspaceVR then logging back in.
If you do encounter difficulties then please let us know on the event series Slack channel, #s4pg-tfom-public. We will do our best to sort it out. (And please do not be put off!)
This FAQ has been adapted from the original version written for IR2022: https://www.ir.isas.jaxa.jp/IR2022/VR.html