Is Virtual Reality the Future? My PXR Experience

Poster for PXR Conference 2023. The words "PXR Conference 2023" appear under the sea in a virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a relatively unexplored area of technology that can take you to worlds beyond your imagination. This past week I have had the pleasure of attending the PXR Conference run by Single Thread Theatre Company and Electric Company Theatre. It is a ten-day hybrid conference that showcases the best of Virtual Reality (VR) and how it can be used as a tool for interactive experiences.

The conference begins with in-person events in both Toronto and Vancouver. I was unfortunately unable to attend either since I am based in Kingston but it seemed like great fun. My PXR experience started with picking up my Meta Quest 2 VR headset. I then proceeded to spend a few hours setting it up. The setup is not as complicated as I thought; I just had a few not-so-smart moments. For example, I was stuck on the setup screen for over half an hour because I did not have batteries inside of my controllers. Realistically I think it should have taken me about an hour to fully set up my VR headset and connect to the event if I was a bit smarter with it.

After getting tickets to the conference I was asked to join a Discord channel which has all the information to join the events. A major success of the conference is its focus on providing clear instructions on how to access the varying events. Technology, especially VR, can be confusing for people to get the hang of. However, the conference does a fantastic job of making this experience smooth for participants. Documents are available to explain step-by-step how to download and access all the events. There are also people waiting in a call to help anyone not familiar with VR. I have never really used VR before and I found it extremely welcoming and easy to get set up in the environment, and prepare for the conference and events (after the few hours it took to set up the actual headset). 

The launch party took place at 1:00 pm EST on Saturday, November 11th in VRChat. VRChat and all the apps I bring up in this article are essentially applications where it is possible to create interactive worlds in VR. The creator can also invite friends to join and chat. This is how the performances/events run—someone creates their show and/or event and participants join with the invite. The opening event starts in a virtually created Vancouver apartment where participants can mingle with each other and get familiar with the technology. Participants then take a portal to a virtual oil rig created by the PXR team. This is where the introduction to the virtual environment and to the conference itself commences.  Next comes proceeding into an underwater environment. I was able to look out the window and see under the sea which I found super cool. The keynote speech by Emmy award-winning XR Director Michaela Ternasky-Holland is here as well. She discusses the importance of quality over quantity in the industry and gives her professional insight into the field with examples of real work and research studies conducted. This is a terrific speech to kick off the conference as she continuously talks about why people should care about VR. As a person who was not that familiar with the industry, this was a great way of winning my support for the technology before the conference got into full swing.

Unfortunately, I was a bit late to Splash Mango’s Dragon Magic, Freedom Giants PXR Laboratory event so I joined the stream on Discord. I’d like to mention that every event in the conference is also streamed on their Discord. This means that even without a headset in hand at the time of the show, you can still watch the event unfold which I loved. This event takes place in the ENGAGEVR app where the team showcases a beautiful interactive world. Inside, one can move around the environment and look at the huge circus-inspired models built with incredible detail. Music fitted to the environment is heard which adds to the atmosphere and I wish I had seen it in VR. It ends with a Q and A with the designers and creators where they discuss their design choices and how they created this world.

On Sunday, November 12th, I participated in Museums Without Walls: XR Systems for cultural access and Preservation by Gabriel Menotti. It takes place on the Mozilla Hubs app and is essentially a way of creating virtual museums that are inspired by real-life ones. Menotti discusses the process of creating these museums and then lets an audience explore them for a while. It is interesting to see what’s been created but I was a little underwhelmed by the quality of it in the VR environment. With that being said I believe this is a great idea and with the emerging technology and graphics, is a fantastic starting point for future projects.

Finally, I want to discuss my favourite event I’ve attended so far which was on the night of Sunday, November 12th in VRChat: Live Performance 360 by Boca Del Lupo’s Jay and Carey Dodge. The event consists of a speech and Q and A session where they discuss their ongoing project of using 360 video capture technology to document and archive live performances such as theatre. They discuss their struggles and successes with the technology while also touching on their future aspirations for the project. After the event, I searched through the conference Discord for a link to their documented shows and I was able to watch a few of the performances they had already 360 captured in VR. The difference I found between watching the performances in VR and just watching them on YouTube was fascinating. It is so much more engaging and immersive in the VR environment because it felt like I was actually there, sitting in the audience. Similar to the virtual museum, its major shortcoming is in the graphics technology and in this one specifically, the 360 camera technology. Even so, as the technology improves, I can see this not only being used to archive live performances but also being a very viable second option to watching a performance live in theatre.

The PXR Conference has been a major success as I have enjoyed every event I have seen. They have broadened my knowledge of this technology and I look forward to seeing what this new and upcoming medium has to offer. I also wanted to point out some events I did not have time to see such as PXR’s arcade events where one can play games such as VR mini golf and there have also been other speeches by folks in the industry I could not attend. I will however be discussing two PXR experience shows from the conference in my next article. These events cost extra to attend but really show what this technology can do in an interactive and immersive way.

The 2023 PXR Conference runs from November 10th – November 19th. Find more information here

This article was edited on December 1st, 2023 to update formatting.