EventsEducation & TrainingExtended Reality

Highlights, Trends, and Announcements From iLRN 2021

iLRN held their seventh annual conference this summer, the second in Virbela.


The Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) has recently held its seventh annual conference. For the second year, the conference took place in their virtual campus on the VR remote work platform Virbela. But, unlike last year (the first year that ARPost covered the event), this year’s conference was a month-long “festival” held from May 17 to June 10.

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As is our usual disclaimer for event coverage, we couldn’t cover everything. After all, the event featured over 100 sessions including over 37 hours of presentations and speeches. However, we were able to pick out some trends and announcements.

This Year’s Big Trends

Surprisingly, COVID, the “new normal,” and the convergence of emerging technologies didn’t dominate iLRN like they have dominated other recent XR conferences (A sign that nature is healing?).

iLRN panel

Instead, conversations revolved around opportunities to use XR technology, concern regarding ethics in this new technology, barriers to entry and adoption, the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration in XR education, and the value of different experiences in education.

Opportunities and Responsibilities of XR Experiences

“What does the next interface look like in the age of spatial computing that we’re all entering,” University of Southern California’s MxR Lab director, Jessica Brillhart, asked in a panel discussion titled “Looking Forward: The Next 100 Years of XR Research.” “We have the capacity to completely reinvent how we interact and convey information in the virtual space.”

It was a recurring theme: the good news about XR is that it gives us the opportunity to create our own realities, while the bad news about XR is that it gives us the responsibility to create our own realities.

“When it comes to XR, it really comes down to what kind of realities we want to create,” XR ethics and safety expert Kavya Pearlman commented in a feature presentation. During iLRN, Pearlman was also recognized with the “Trailblazer Award” for her work with the XR Safety Initiative. “[XR] brings so many opportunities, but it also brings many many risks.”

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A potential solution to this balance of risk and opportunity? Collaboration.

“The truth is, the future is complex, interconnected, and kind of scary,” iLRN President and CEO Jonathon Richter said in his closing address. “But it’s full of all of this potential and if we work together we can create an amazing world.”

The Need for Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

“With this conference, we’re planting the seeds for this new knowledge tree – this place where different disciplines can understand and situate one another’s expert work and grow the science of immersive learning with its multitude of fruits,” Richter said.

The call was repeated not just by event organizers, but by researchers that spoke and presented throughout the conference.

“What the XR field needs now is cross-disciplinary collaboration,” Norwegian University of Science and Technology professor Ekaterina Prasolova-Førland said in the “Looking Forward: The Next 100 Years of XR Research” panel discussion. “I believe that this is something that we need to account for as we plan for the development of the field.”

Comments in the opening ceremony encouraged attendees to maintain cross-disciplinary connections that they made well after the conference.

Ethical Issues

One discipline that needs to come to the table, and definitely occupied a few chairs at iLRN, is ethics.

“We can’t even make our reality a safe space,” Graz University of Technology lecturer and researcher Johanna Pirker said in the “Next 100 Years” panel discussion. “I love VR so much, I see so much potential, but I am so scared because everyone is developing, developing, developing, but not including particular safety features.”

iLRN panel

Pirker pointed out well-intentioned features in Virbela that could be misused by bad actors, not because Virbela is a bad program but to showcase the significance of incorporating different perspectives. Pearlman, who famously brought hijabs to Altspace, played a similar role.

“Technologies are converging and at the convergence point we will start to see very grave unintended consequences and at that point, it might be too late to reverse them,” said Pearlman.

Celebrating Difference

Diversity doesn’t only have to do with disciplines. Including a variety of people and perspectives also helps to make XR safer and more user-friendly. Fortunately, iLRN was a highly diverse event that featured and celebrated a wide range of experiences as well as speakers and presenters from around the world including the Americas, Africa, Asia, and throughout Europe.

XR Women also gave three awards during iLRN’s larger awards event, including Pearlman’s Trailblazer award.

Judith Onkowo received the Real World Impact Award for her work in development and deployment of XR in Africa. Also, Cambridge University doctoral researcher Genevieve Smith-Nunes received the Innovation Award for her work that “combines classical ballet, biometric data capture, augmented reality, and ethics.”

“It is an honor to have these XR Women with diverse and global perspectives lead humanity through exponential changes to education, the arts, job skill sets, communities, and our well-being,” said Julie Smithson, XR Women Board Chair. “We are proud to recognize their impact as global changemakers for the betterment of humankind.” 

Talks and panel discussions were also dedicated to creating safe and inclusive experiences around different gender identities and sexual orientations, as well as issues relating to race and social justice.

Barriers to Adoption

“We still have some kind of mundane issues that we need to deal with,” said Prasolova-Førland. “You need to make creating immersive education content as easy as creating a PowerPoint.”

In other words, the people that can make immersive experiences and the people that can make educational experiences aren’t always the same people. It was a common theme throughout the conference, and it’s a problem for immersive education.

“It’s very technically challenging to create these kinds of experiences and hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to get more people into these spaces,” Harvard University researcher Iulian Radu said in the “Next 100 Years” panel.

The Value of Gaming in Education

Fortunately, gaming in education has huge potential. This includes game engines that make content easier to produce for non-developers. However, games also have the capacity not only to make conventional learning more interesting, but to open doors in social-emotional learning. An entire panel discussion was dedicated to the topic.

iLRN 2021 games for learning

“Play helps us learn to cope physically and emotionally, and to interact with others,” said researcher Vignesh Mukund in the “Using Digital Games to Build Social and Emotional Learning” panel. “In games, failure isn’t permanent. Every failstep is temporary.”

Major iLRN Announcements

The iLRN conference also had some exciting announcements, some more outward facing and others more related to iLRN specifically.

State of XR Report Launch

The most interesting announcement for people outside of iLRN is probably their inaugural State of XR & Immersive Learning Outlook Report, now available for download.

“We really see [the report] as an ongoing product for us to be able to publish what we see as this emerging future,” Richter said.

iLRN report launch

The long-anticipated report focuses on trends and opportunities in emerging and immersive technologies, but it also focuses on catalysts and barriers to adoption.

“I’m very optimistic about XR and its possibilities, but what we’re doing here is a kind of reality check,” co-author Bryan Alexander said in the report launch that took place during the conference.

Next year’s version of the report is already in the conceptual stages.

New K-12 Focus

Right now, a lot of iLRN’s activities and membership are oriented toward higher education. This is in part because higher education institutions are more likely to have more resources to devote to XR initiatives.

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However, there are plenty of opportunities for immersive education in primary and secondary education and iLRN has launched a new practitioner stream focusing on these areas. “K-12 Innovation in XR” or “KIX” for short, is forming now.

Next Year in Person?

Dates and times haven’t been finalized, but in his closing address, Richter stated that the current plan is to hold the iLRN conference in person in 2022. Richter and iLRN COO Heather Dodds both commented at various points in the conference that rapid growth attendance was partially due to the remote offerings but there’s always something missing from in-person events.

As for this year, you can watch recordings of sessions on iLRN’s YouTube channel and download the conference proceedings from their website.


Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.