I gave a keynote in virtual reality. Here’s what I learned

[Here’s a short first-person report from Inc. in which an experienced public speaker describes their first experience (including elements of presence) giving a keynote talk in virtual reality. –Matthew]

I Gave a Keynote in Virtual Reality. Here’s What I Learned

Live, onstage is the best, but this is better than a regular videoconference. For sure.

By Suzanne Lucas, Freelance Writer
October 25, 2021

Public speaking is my favorite part of my job, and the pandemic basically destroyed that, so when JobCon 2021 asked me to keynote its virtual event, I jumped at the chance. I figured it would be via a normal videoconference, but the organizers had a surprise: virtual reality. You know, with that weird headset and hand controls.

I was skeptical, but said, what the heck, let’s do it.

Plus, my teens were super excited about the free Oculus headset JobCon sent me to do the presentation. Admittedly, I had them set up the system and teach me how to use it. They taught me, and I wrote the speech and it was a success. Here’s what happened and what I learned.

Motion sickness when standing still is real

I hadn’t ever worn a virtual reality headset before, and the first thing my teens set up for me was a virtual roller coaster ride. I literally had to lie down after standing still, because the virtual reality induced real nausea.

For the presentation, JobCon staff gave me training on how to move my avatar so I didn’t get sick during the talk. Their tips were helpful and very necessary. Stay away from the virtual roller coasters before you have to speak!

It’s much more “real” than a videoconference

Even though I had a cartoon avatar and some of the people in the audience had monster, plague doctor, or space alien avatars, it felt more authentic than a Zoom meeting with everyone in little boxes.

Some people came in late, some shifted in their seats, and some (though I hate to admit it) got up and walked out mid-speech. Ouch! But they seemed very real. I could see real responses to what I said (albeit, silently, as the techs had muted everyone but me). It felt much more like a live presentation than any of the numerous video presentations I’ve done in the past 18 months.

I could move around the stage, point to things, use hand motions (although they looked a little strange!), and act like I was really on a stage, instead of in my living room.

I experienced a conference stage without leaving my living room

I stood in my living room, wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and no shoes. My avatar was professionally dressed and a whole lot thinner than I am. That’s handy! They even included my trademark glasses on my avatar.

But, because the virtual reality headset blocks out all reality, I had to shut all the doors so a cat didn’t wander in, come up to me, and scare the snot out of me because I couldn’t see it. I also couldn’t really take a pause to take a drink. I couldn’t see my water bottle, and I would have had to put down my controllers to drink. I managed to do an entire hour without a gulp of water. I think that’s a record for me!

Good tech makes all the difference

As I said, my kids set up my headset, but the tech crew at JobCon went above and beyond to make it a great experience. They had my slides projected behind me–that I could point to and interact with. But they also had them in front of me, so I could see them. They could have included notes as well, but I don’t generally use notes for my speeches.

The Q & A portion was so real

While, in a videoconference, you can see people’s faces, people often turn off their cameras or feel self-conscious. As avatars, people seemed much more human. When the tech crew turned on microphones and I took questions from the audience, the virtual body language helped me understand their questions. Yes, some hand movements are exaggerated and you aren’t going to notice everything you would in a live setting. But I felt connected to the audience.

I hope my audience felt connected to me!

Will virtual reality conferences become a thing of the future? I think we’ll see more of them. If you get the chance to attend one, give it a go. And if you get a chance to speak? Jump on it. It’s a learning experience and a leap into the future.

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