HTC’s just-concluded Virtual Vive Ecosystem Conference represented a step forward for the virtual events industry, serving as the first fully VR replacement for a major industry event previously held in the physical world. But instead of escaping from the global coronavirus pandemic, attendees found themselves getting even closer to the disease than expected, thanks to a bizarre early segment in the nearly four-hour event.

Rather than holding the Vive Ecosystem Conference in its prior Shenzhen, China venue, the virtual conference was built inside Engage, a collaborative VR application that works with Vive, Oculus, Valve, and Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets. Presenters and a somewhat sparse audience were represented by individual 3D avatars, appearing in an outdoor amphitheater with concrete bench seating.

Following 15 minutes of sober but calming speeches by chairperson Cher Wang and CEO Yves Maitre, HTC’s China president Alvin Graylin took the stage for his presentation. Chiding rival Magic Leap for failing to deliver the flying whales it had touted in early AR promotional videos — something that didn’t quite work as expected at HTC’s event, either — Graylin opted to demonstrate the power of VR events in a highly unusual way. After discussing the impact of the coronavirus on HTC’s staff, he released virtual coronavirus particles into the audience, then asked attendees to pose for a “quick selfie” as the particles floated around them.

“These are pictures that you guys have probably seen way too many of,” Graylin said, as images of masked people and viruses appeared behind him on a large screen, “and you probably hope you never see them again. But what if you could see them in a different way?”

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At that point, balloon-like 3D models of coronavirus particles appeared behind Graylin, and began moving into the crowd. “But don’t worry, guys,” he said. “These viruses aren’t going to hurt you, because we’ve prepared. All of you guys have been now issued special protective gear.” As he spoke, each member of the audience was covered in a protective outfit, and the virus particles came closer, hovering directly in front of attendees. While the event video shows a wide-angle shot of the crowd, you can probably imagine what that experience might have been like from a viewer’s first-person perspective.

“So this is a very interesting type of experience that we can have because of platforms like this,” Graylin said. “And this is actually going to be how the future of conferences are going to be done.”

If the prospect of having virtual presenters shock attendees with random virus releases wasn’t unsettling enough, Graylin went further, asking the audience to take a photo to memorialize the moment. “So why don’t we do a little fun thing? Let’s do a quick selfie with your protective gear and these viruses right now.”

Even by the standards of past technology keynotes, which commonly have odd moments, HTC’s glib treatment of the coronavirus outbreak was particularly tone deaf. Although China appears to be on the mend after thousands of COVID-19 deaths, users elsewhere in the world continue to shelter in place as job losses and other socioeconomic disruptions reach historic levels.

On a positive note, there’s no question that virtual events will take on much greater importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and that the modest crowd seen at HTC’s event will grow as users become more comfortable with this hardware and software. Moreover, it appears that the Engage software performed as it was supposed to, enabling multiple participants to experience the mass gathering from different locations while giving presenters new tools to capture viewers’ attention.

Let’s just hope that future presenters are a little more conscious of their audiences. Even if the digital event software and hardware work perfectly, content that makes participants feel uncomfortable will lead people to abandon virtual events just as quickly as they have with real ones over the past two months.