1 Introduction

Conferences are one of the primary means by which new scientific knowledge is disseminated and that researchers interact with their peers [10, 17]. Prior to 2020, multi-day, all-day, in-person conferences were regarded as the norm. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an abundance of opportunities has arisen for researchers to participate in online scientific events for shorter durations, while balancing their everyday duties from the comfort of their homes or labs. This has also presented challenges for those who have unsuitable circumstances to participate in such events remotely, and for those who feel uncomfortable with the less immersive interactions of such events. The second group benefits from their attendance at in-person conferences, and virtual reality represents the closest alternative. In this article, we focus on the use of immersive virtual environments at remote conferences. We examine which groups exhibited the strongest desire to use the technology, and tested researchers’ eagerness to participate in particular conference elements that are delivered in virtual reality (VR).

2 Literature Review

By attending prominent scientific conferences, academics gain visibility and recognition: a fundamental “currency” in academia. They can also contribute to the maintenance of established order [18], as well as reinforcing the Matthew effect [12]; that is, the accumulation of scientific advantages by the scholars who already possess them. Such events entailed limited numbers of attendees, and were often difficult for those attendees to reach due to financial or time constraints [7, 11].

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of online and virtual conferences has increased markedly [1, 19]. This format has enhanced the accessibility of conferences to previously underrepresented groups – including female, minority, and early-career researchers [2, 3, 8, 16, 19]. Moreover, the environmental virtues of remote conferences—chiefly their reduced carbon footprint—have been lauded [1, 5, 8]. The format, however, also entails a number of disadvantages: attendees are no longer physically present at the venues; speakers are largely deprived of the opportunity to observe their audience’s reactions; distractions are frequent; and such events are exposed to continual risk of technical difficulties. All of the above might prove significant impediments to mutual interaction [18]. Networking, which is widely considered a key benefit of conference attendance among researchers, can be also disrupted in remote environments [1]. Scientific collaborations are frequently initiated during backstage chats and coffee breaks. Although organizers of remote conferences endeavour to provide space for informal conversations, “you cannot enjoy a virtual drink!” [15, p. 3].

During traditional, in-person conferences, exclusive pools of scientists are immersed fully in reality; such events do not necessitate the extensive use of electronic devices. Although remote online events are more inclusive and bring together a larger number of attendees from a wider variety of regions [19], those attendees can see each other’s faces only on their screens, while they remain at their places of residence or work. One alternative, and a chance to avoid “Zoom fatigue” [14], involves the delivery of conferences in VR [6]. Pioneering events that utilized the technology were hosted in Second Life, an application released in 2003 that allows users to create their own avatars and interact in a computer-simulated world [4, 13]. Standalone virtual platforms tailored to scientific conferences requirements have also been developed [20, 21]. Presently, Mozilla Hubs, a social web-based virtual space is gaining in popularity [1, 6].

In line with research, several strengths and weaknesses of VR conferences can be identified. An evaluation study of a gathering organized by the IBM research team in the Second Life environment revealed the participants’ overall satisfaction; attendees found poster sessions to be the most successful aspect of the conference [4]. A pilot experiment of Merck Research Laboratories achieved similar results: 94% of the participants found the virtual conference to be valuable, and 59% declared that the virtual poster session was more effective than a face-to-face one [21]. Virtual reality has the potential to overcome one of the most significant drawbacks of online conferences: reduced networking opportunities [1]. During the IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces in 2020 (IEEEVR2020), participants were offered to participate using three different platforms: Twitch, (an interactive livestreaming service); Slack (a communication platform); and Mozilla Hubs (a VR platform). Although attendees reported that Mozilla Hubs was the least effective for socializing and building networks, the platform’s users perceived social presence was the highest of the three options; its users described the social gatherings as “fun and playful” [1, p. 9]. The most serious disadvantage of VR conferences is the presence of technical and technological obstacles; unstable internet speed [9] or the discomfort of wearing a VR headset for long periods [1] carry the potential to create frustration. Primarily for this reason, many IEEEVR2020 participants fled the VR environment for simple video streams. Importantly, this observation also held true for individuals who had previous VR experience [1].

3 Methodology, Sample, and Respondents

A survey was conducted by the National Information Processing Institute (OPI PIB) in the form of a computer-assisted web interview (CAWI) questionnaire between 28 January and 8 February 2021. The sample size was 1,575. The POL-on database of academics in Poland (https://polon.nauka.gov.pl/siec-polon) was used as the sampling frame. At the outset, the sample of academics was drawn; then, they received an email that contained an invitation to participate in the survey. The sampling scheme considered the distribution of characteristics in the population of academics in Poland in terms of gender, degree or title, type of institution, and scientific field (random quota sampling).

We assessed participation in remote scientific conferences in three primary aspects: a) attitudes toward participation in remote scientific conferences – drivers and barriers; b) attitudes toward participation in remote scientific conferences in the form of meetings in immersive virtual reality (IVR) – drivers and barriers; and c) preferences regarding the format of remote scientific conferences – including speaking time, methods of presenting results, and other events.

We divided the respondents using two criteria: overall willingness to participate in remote scientific conferences after the COVID-19 pandemic, and willingness to participate in remote scientific conferences in VR. In both categories, respondents were asked to indicate whether they were “for” or “against” participating in these event types. In this way, we obtained four subsamples, which we compared in terms of their motivations and preferences. Table 1 presents the split of the respondents and the sizes of the groups.

Table 1. Split of respondents and group sizes.

The following abbreviations are used in the remainder of this article: VR_Yes_Remote_Yes (group A); VR_No_Remote_Yes (group B); VR_Yes_Remote_No (group C); VR_No_Remote_No (group D).

The respondents also provided open-ended qualitative responses in which they indicated the reasons for their preferences regarding events that utilize videoconferencing or VR technology. We then categorised the motivations they mentioned. The content of the open-ended questions was later quantitatively coded to the motivation categories.

4 Results

The survey considered respondents’ general willingness to participate in remote conferences, and that the potential influence of current epidemiological circumstances. Proponents of postpandemic remote conferencing—including those interested (group A – 93%) and those uninterested (group B – 95%) in using VR as part of the conference experience—were significantly more likely to state they would also attend such events during the pandemic. Among those who wished not to participate in remote conferences after the pandemic, 41% (group C) would consider doing so in the current circumstances; these are the same respondents who exhibited interest in experiencing conferences in VR. Group D comprises respondents who were interested in neither postpandemic remote conferencing nor VR technology, but considered participating in remote conferences during the pandemic (62%).

The sources of the respondents’ unwillingness to attend remote conferences are compelling when considered from the perspectives of VR proponents and skeptics. In the VR proponents group, those uninterested in postpandemic remote conferencing (group C) were significantly more likely (85%) to cite ‘difficulty interacting with other participants’ compared to those who considered attending such events (group A – 56%). Conversely, among the VR skeptics, those reluctant to participate in remote conferences (group D) were significantly more likely (54%) than online conference supporters (group B; 23%) to state that they were discouraged by the ‘lower status of such conferences’.

With regard to respondents’ motives for participating in remote conferences, a similarity can be observed in the distributions of results across groups A and B, and across groups C and D. The overall desire to attend remote conferences in groups A and B is reflected in the number of motives indicated. The key reasons stated among groups A and B are presented in Table 2.

Members of groups C and D were significantly less likely to indicate such motives; this is consistent with their reluctance to continue attending remote conferences after the pandemic. Nevertheless, we observed greater desire to meet the primary goals of conferences among members of group D compared to group C (Table 2). Interestingly, group B is significantly more likely than group C to attach high value to the practical aspects of such events.

Table 2. What would encourage you to participate in a remote conference?

We also asked respondents what specific events they wished to attend during remote conferences (Table 3). Attention among those who were open to using VR technology (groups A and C) focused more than the VR skeptics (groups B and D) did on networking. Unsurprisingly, formal aspects of the conference were of higher importance among group B than group C.

Table 3. Which specific events at a remotely hosted conference would you wish to attend?

The results differed when we asked the respondents about their willingness to participate in conferences organized in VR (Table 4). The respondents who indicated openness to VR conferencing tools and simultaneous reluctance to participate in standard remote conferencing (group C) were interested in other, more social events than members of group B. When in which activity types they wished to participate during VR conferences, the technophiles (group A) exhibited significantly more interest than other groups in each of the types proposed: from formal activities, through informal ones, to cultural ones. In contrast lie the techno-skeptics (group D), who exhibited significantly less interest than the others groups in each of the activity types. In three dimensions, however, they do not differ from group B, with whom they share an aversion to VR. Both groups also exhibited interest in informal aspects of VR conferences to similarly low degrees. This explains the reluctance of the groups to engage with VR – a technology that offers opportunities to experience closer contact with others.

Table 4. Which specific events at a remotely hosted VR conference would you wish to attend?

Finally, we more closely examine the characteristics of the members of each group. We observed a similar pattern of results in groups A (VR_Yes_Remote_Yes) and B (VR_No_Remote_Yes) when compared with groups C (VR_Yes_Remote_No) and D (VR_No_Remote_No). Individuals who exhibited interest in participating in postpandemic remote conferences—both those interested and those uninterested in using VR technology—had significantly more experience with online conferencing (Fig. 1). We can conclude from this that the experience of participating in remote conferences determines respondents’ willingness to participate in such events in the future.

Fig. 1.
figure 1

Experience with online conferencing

Moreover, we observed age differences between group A and the others (Fig. 2). Group A, which exhibited positive attitudes toward both remote and VR conferencing, is dominated by those aged under 45.

Fig. 2.
figure 2

Age distribution

Interestingly, group C with individuals interested in using VR technology, but uninterested in attending remote conferences per se largely comprise males (Fig. 3). Compared to this group, three times as many female members of group B stated that they were considering participating in online conferences, but did not wish to use VR. This pattern might indicate more pragmatism among the female group members than among the male ones.

Fig. 3.
figure 3

Gender distribution

Additionally, we coded an open-ended question in which survey participants could elaborate on their reasons for preferring VR or classic remote conferences. Among the proponents of classic remote conference, the most common reasons included unfamiliarity with VR technology and the desire to use familiar solutions, aversion to VR, lack of added value, and a mismatch between the novelty of the format and the prestige of academic conferences. Some respondents believed that remote conference contact is closer to that experienced during in-person meetings. Analogously, proponents of VR indicated superior imitation of real conference environments, contact with other participants, and curiosity about the new technology.

5 Conclusions

The two primary variables we considered—attitudes toward remote conferencing and toward virtual reality—paint a more accurate picture of researchers, whose openness to technology varies in the context of scientific conferences. We established four discrete groups: technophiles, techno-skeptics, pragmatists, and socializers.

Based on the data collected, it seems that the techno-skeptics are the most likely to continue with traditional in-person conferences that are not mediated by technology. Their key motivation for attending remote conferences is to accomplish the primary goals of conferences as standard academic events; they pay little attention to the new opportunities presented by remotely organized conferences, beyond personal safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. As research suggests that the most rewarding elements of participation in research conferences are related to “attending”, “being seen”, and “seeing others” [17], we may assume that the techno-skeptics consider physical presence to influence the “flow of academic understanding” [10, p. 28]. The respondents’ seniority correlates with their treatment of remote conferences as lower-ranked events that are unable to enhance participants’ recognition in their fields.

The conclusions differ among VR-skeptics who exhibit positive attitudes toward remote conferencing – the so-called pragmatists that see opportunities to save time and reduce costs without compromising the goals usually pursued at conferences. The pragmatic attitudes of women are particularly noteworthy. This may corroborate the accessibility of remote conferences to a wider pool of participants – including those who have care duties [3]. Perhaps these additional responsibilities explain the pragmatists’ skepticism toward VR – a technology that entails “full immersion”; when participation in conferences happens alongside child- or elderly care, immersion can act as a hindrance rather than an advantage.

The technophiles, like the pragmatists, were open both to remote conferencing and to VR technology. This group is characterized by its exceptional motivation to participate in conferences organized online; it is also the group most willing to participate in almost all conference events organized in VR. Its members are relatively young, which can inform their positive attitudes toward VR and their desire for new opportunities to participate in events. This might encourage organizers of online scientific conferences for early-career scientists to offer attendees unique value propositions rather than only the standard agenda items [1]. This serves as another acknowledgement of remote conferences’ greater inclusiveness.

Among the last group we distinguished—socializers who have little desire to participate in online conferences—VR seems to be an opportunity to experience closer relations than at traditional remote conferences. Conversations and informal meetings with others, whether during online or VR-mediated events, matter more to this group than the others. They stand in opposition to the pragmatists, who pay much less attention to these aspects. Those who focus on contact with others may be the most acutely affected by “Zoom fatigue” [14], and hope to overcome it in VR. Since socialization and networking are the strongest predictors of the overall satisfaction participants derive from remote conferences [1], this should inform the development of future events. Perhaps, as Ahn et al. [1] suggest, strictly scientific points in conference agendas—such as Q&A sessions and keynote speeches—should be arranged on live streaming platforms; this may transfer socializing activities to the virtual world more effectively. Since researchers who attend VR conferences are keen to repeat such experiences [21], combining streaming platforms with immersive environments seems an effective solution both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.