Questioning Reality: Explorations of Virtual Reality and Our Social Future

The Data Sciences Institute Questioning Reality: Explorations of Virtual Reality conference will be a unique and thought-provoking event that will explore the realm of social interactions in mediated environments, encompassing virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), extended reality (XR), and mixed realities (MR). This conference aims to bring together leading scholars, industry professionals, and enthusiasts to collaboratively shape the future research landscape of VR. 

About the Conference: 

In a world where technology is rapidly shaping our perceptions of reality, the “Questioning Reality” conference seeks to delve into the intricate interplay between social interactions and mediated environments. Hosted at the Data Sciences Institute space at the University of Toronto, the event will feature a series of engaging discussions, presentations, and networking opportunities aimed at shaping a social interaction-informed agenda for the next research cycle on VR. The conference will also serve as a launchpad for writing a “Debates in Digital Media” edition on Virtual Reality. Conference invitees will also have the opportunity to form collaborative teams to apply for $10k in research project funding to advance the field.  

What to expect: 

This invite-only conference is designed to foster a dynamic and inclusive atmosphere that encourages exploration and collaboration. There is no requirement to submit papers or deliver presentations, and participants are invited to engage in spirited discussions, share their insights, and gain valuable exposure to cutting-edge research in the field. Travel costs to and from the conference will be covered. 

Day 1 introduces the workshop’s goals, invites participants to share their questions, and features a keynote on communication in VR/AR. Day 2 delves deeper with chapter brainstorming, immersive VR experiences, lightning talks on cutting-edge research, and an industry panel. The final day brings forward the future with a keynote on the evolution of social VR, group discussions on forthcoming challenges, and a visionary activity forecasting the landscape of VR/AR/MR. Join this gathering to help shape the discourse and connect with industry leaders and scholars. 

The conference is made possible through the generous support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit, mission-driven grantmaking institution dedicated to improving the welfare of all through the advancement of scientific knowledge.    

April 18, 2024
3:00 - 3:30 pm
3:30 - 4:00 pm
An Invitation
4:00 - 5:00 pm
5:00 - 5:30 pm
5:30 - 6:16 pm
Interpersonal Science in Space and Time: Advancing (and Learning from) Emerging Synchronous Virtual (and “Real”) Worlds - Keynote
Prof. Lynn Miller, University of Southern California
7:00 - 9:00 pm
April 19, 2024
9:00-10:00 am
Debates - Small Groups
10:00-11:00 am
Lightning Talks
11:00 12:00 pm
VR Sandbox
12:00-1:00 pm
1:00-2:00 pm
Industry Panel
Avi Bar-Zeev, Reality Prime
Clorama Dorvilias, Meta
Maxwell Mcgee, Engage XR
Blair Mclntyre, JP Morgan Chase
2:00-3:00 pm
Lightning Talks
3:00-3:30 pm
Coffee Break
3:30-4:30 pm
Blue Sky Discussion
4:30 -5:15 pm
Democratizing Telepresence with AI-Mediated Photoreal Avatar Creation - Keynote
Shalini De Mello, NVIDIA
6:00-9:00 pm
April 20, 2024
8:30 - 9:00 am
9:00 - 10:00 am
Moving Across and Between Realities: An Agenda for the Next Wave of Social XR Research - Keynote
Tony Liao, University of Houston
10:00 - 11:00 am
Debates - Small Group
11:00 - 12:00 pm
Future Forecasting
12:00 - 1:00 pm
1:00 - 3:00 pm
Optional Collaboration Time


Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn 

Director, Center for Advanced Computer-Human Ecosystems (CACHE)

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn (Ph.D., Stanford University) is a Professor of Advertising at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia. She is the founding director of the Center for Advanced Computer-Human Ecosystems (CACHE) and the co-editor-in-chief of Media Psychology. Her main program of research investigates how immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality transform traditional rules of communication and social interactions, looking at how virtual experiences shape the way that people think, feel, and behave in the physical world. Her work is funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and published in numerous top-tier outlets in the fields of communication, health, and engineering.

Bree McEwan 

Associate Director of DSI@UTM and Associate Professor in the Institute for Communication, Culture, and Information Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. 

Dr. Bree McEwan’s research focuses on the intersection between interpersonal communication and communication technology. Her book Navigating New Media Networks explores how communication technology, in particular social media facilitates interpersonal communication processes and relationships. She has published two measures, the Facebook Relational Maintenance measure, and the Perceived Social Affordances of Communication Channels scale. Her recent projects involve tests of an original theory of online information diffusion, the Mediated Skewed Diffusion of Issues Information theory, and exploring how people interact within virtual reality environments.


Tony Liao

Associate Professor, Department of Information Science Technology, Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston

Tony Liao founded the CougAR lab at the University of Houston to explore how augmented reality and mixed reality technologies could affect society now and in the future.  Dr. Liao brings over a decade of experience of studying AR/VR technologies, and his work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Taft Foundation, Cornell’s Institute for the Social Science, and the Cougar Initiative to Engage. His research has been published in leading academic outlets such as New Media & Society, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Information, Communication, & Society, Social Media & Society, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Mobile Media & Communication, Information and Organization, Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Communication Studies, the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR), the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (SIGCHI), Ethics and Information Technology, Journal of Communication Pedagogy, and First Monday.

Shalini De Mello

Director, Research, New Experiences and a Distinguished Research Scientist at NVIDIA

Shalini De Mello leads the AI-Mediated Reality and Interaction Research Group. Previously, she was a researcher in the Learning and Perception Research Group at NVIDIA, from 2013 to 2023. Her research interests are in AI, computer vision and digital humans. Her research focuses on using AI to re-imagine interactions between humans, and between humans and machines. She has co-authored scores of peer-reviewed publications and patents. Her inventions have contributed to several NVIDIA AI products, including NVIDIA’s DriveIX, Maxine and the TAO Toolkit solutions. She received her Doctoral and Master’s degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

Lynn Carol Miller

Professor, Communication, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Professor, Psychology, University of Southern California

Lynn Carol Miller’s initial training was in personality and interpersonal science in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Subsequently, with the help of collaborators, she developed expertise in virtual intervention development, innovative new interpersonal virtual environment designs, and the use of these with bio-behavioral tools (e.g., fMRI, EMI) and AI. With over $22M in grant funding (NIH (NIAID, NIMH, NIDA, NIGMS), CDC, DOD/DARPA, NSF), over a 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters, she and her colleagues are pioneers in developing interpersonal interactive virtual avatar-agent environments (i.e., Socially Optimized Learning in Virtual Environments (SOLVE) including a 3D animated version with intelligent agents. SOLVE was the first intervention that successfully reduced shame (doing so nationally over the web): It was found that shame-reduction reduced risky sexual decision making for men who have sex with men (MSM). SOLVE is also used in neuroscience research to assess underlying neural dynamics of risky (or safer) decision making during virtual social interactions affording insights into what neurally mitigated risk for MSM. Additional social neural-network computational neuroscience modeling of cognitive architectures has also been used to address dynamic enigmas in personality, motivation, and decision-making and that could drive (with a more “brain-based” psychological AI) future virtual agents. She developed a new award-wining research design (Systematic Representative Design) to rethink how we could representatively sample from social interactions in the “real world” to create generalizable virtual worlds with improved causal inference capacity that have already been shown to impact “real world” subsequent behavior.

April 18 – 20, 2024
Data Sciences Institute,
700 University Avenue, 
Toronto, ON