by Emily Olman
CEO & Chief Photographer, Hopscotch Interactive & AUREA Award Ambassador and Community Chair
For the last two years I have been attending the AUREA Award at Europapark in Rust, Germany. First, as a jury member and then as the AUREA Ambassador. When the time came to look at the third annual conference in 2021, we had all hoped that an in-person event would be possible. Perhaps not for a large group we thought, but eventually we realized even hosting a small group in person became too much to imagine when the park itself had shut down in November to outside guests. And then we, as professionals in the XR industry, were finding ourselves having to take an in-person event truly virtual — was it a test, or a chance to prove ourselves? Was it a matter of principle to have XR elements in the program? Was it also something that might add to the experience in unknown ways that might even be better than, or replace certain elements that we had thought could only happen in real life? These were just a few of the questions that faced us as we led up to the 3rd annual AUREA Award which took place from January 22-23, 2021.
Fortunately the partners, including our location host, Europapark and the Mack family (Michael Mack, Europapark, Marcus Ernst, Europapark, Mack Next and Mack Media as well), were able to quickly pivot to an online-only event. And, with the help of Betahaus and iConomy Partners (praise to Clark Parsons, Felix Styma, Alex Magaard, and Friedbert Pflüger, the transition from all in-person to all-virtual became something not only imaginable, but really, really exciting. In fact, as I gave my talk at the beginning of the event announcing the new AUREA Award Community, it was true when I said that of the hundreds of invitations and events that have come my way over the last year this is the only one where I dedicated the full two days time to being present for everything. I care about the people, the community, and I have a connection that makes me want to participate in a significant way. Normally I would take about 10 days to fly to Europe, battle Jetlag, prepare my talks and the run-of-show prep with the team, and then maybe have to turn right around and come back and have the reverse Jetlag all over again. This time, I saved myself the travel, but uncertainties remained, would I have that same level of immersion? What could I do to really feel like I was there?
So as I thought about this, it became very evident that spending as much time in VR during the conference was going to be super important for me while trying to create presence while still being physically in California. We therefore planned the event so that on the first day we would have a lot of programming in Hopin (a platform for virtual conferences that is already adopted as the new standard in Europe) and some prerecorded content, but on the second day, I hosted a networking session with Amy Jupiter in Altspace, with a special set from DJ Keyframe just for the event. Hopscotch Interactive Media Editor Fanny Garcia was in attendance as well, so we got to hang out, and also meet a lot of other people from the show, and it really felt like we were attending something - and that we weren't actually still just in our offices zooming away. About 30 minutes into it, it was apparent that the networking session was so successful that we realized some people didn't want to go back to Hopin yet, and so we scrambled a bit and then got the live feed of the AUREAs streaming into our venue in Altspace so that we could watch the show in VR. That was something later we thought we should have done from the beginning, but we thought about it only in the moment. And, I have to say that Victoria Grant of Making XR was an amazing developer to work with, because she literally had 1000 things happening at once and just to get the Altspace venues to be as great as they were took many, many iterations and lots of testing together in the platform to get it right. The fact that she got the hack for the livestream operating as quickly and as well as she did, just showcased to me her many talents.
While the majority of the second day's events continued in Hopin and were also being live-streamed in VR, I ended up staying in gear for the majority of the second day and that continued through the pitches, through the entertainment, and even through to the piece de resistance which was Ain der Machine performing the clips from the panel that I had been on from the day before with Jury Chair Kathleen Cohen, Amy Jupiter (Honored Guest and Speaker), and Cathy Hackl (Jury Member). The video above gives you a glimpse into what he performed live with his body as an instrument and all of the live video mixing he was able to do...we were all blown away and I got to experience becoming a "meme" for a minute as the quotes of the day were all threaded into the performance. He was spectacular.
Fast-forward to the awards and the moving remarks by Michael Mack, CEO of Europapark, and Friedbert Pflüger, of Pflüger International and iConomy Foundation, and there was certainly a tremendous feeling of pride for what we had all accomplished and also that we could feel so connected as a community even though we were apart in distance. I really truly feel like I was there, and being in VR and seeing the "telecast" streaming of the performances and everything else really brought me to this place of virtual presence.
And in years past we have partied after the show in one amazing venue or another at Europapark such as Rulantica or at the Palast, but being able to meet with jury members, attendees, and other XR friends afterwards was really a mind-blowing and unique experience that I'll never forget. I loved that Athena Demos and Doug Jacobson from BRCvr (who had just won in the category of CREATIVE for Burning Man in VR) joined us - via Mexico, and that Frederic LeCompte from the Jury & a previous winner joined us via Paris, plus Kathleen Cohen, Chris Bellaci, and many, many more. The tremendous effort that Keyframe put in with DJ Celeste to premier the Club Zenith for our event and to have her perform live in Tribe VR was also truly amazing.
So, I came away with the feeling that it's absolutely possible to take a community and to establish it in a meaningful way as a hybrid or completely virtual entity - and that even though I didn't get to go to Europapark in person and ride the VR coasters, I got to be there and create something magical with my friends, and to make new friends (Hopin speed networking is INSANELY AWESOME), and so there are actually things that make a virtual conference even better than one IRL, though I know it's hard to imagine. And I think it's super important to seek every ounce of positivity we can in spite of all of the challenges this year. I also didn't come home with Jetlag, even though I was "there", so while I'll look forward to hanging with everyone in the wave pool at Rulantica again soon, I have no doubt that we elevated the AUREA Award conference in such a profound way, and that this is just the beginning.
Note: to join the AUREA Award Community friend me on LinkedIn and ask to join. We are a growing community of XR professionals who care about the future of XR and it's place in entertainment and reimagining spaces.