Grassroots Student Initiative Brings XR To The Midwest
The future of XR technology is now in the hands of the young and ambitious.
Michigan students Michael Zhang and Matthew Kosova successfully hosted over 70+ attendees at their homegrown XR Midwest Conference on April 7, bringing companies like Ford to share VR/AR projects with a nascent but optimistic young audience.
Zhang and Kosova have worked tirelessly on the creation of the ARI (Alternate Reality Initiative), a student-led organization that the two established together in late 2017 at The University of Michigan. Beginning with the goal of helping students explore, learn, build and connect with immersive technology, they used leftover funding from the school year to organize their very first conference—complete with industry keynotes, a catered lunch, and an exhibition.
“There haven’t been many large organized events like this in the midwest,” Zhang explained to me during a VOIP chat with both himself and Kosova. He partially credited the fact that there aren’t many other universities with student boards focused on immersive technology, but also that theirs is still the single largest in the area.
The two see the conference as a way to bring XR industry inhabitants together in the midwest, a locale that traditionally doesn’t see as much presence from the tech industry as cities like Austin, TX, or the coastal regions of the United States. “We cranked it out of thin air trying to get it going,” Kosova added. “But once I reached out to a few different companies, we started getting responses back from companies we hadn’t even contacted, asking how they could help us.”
According to Zhang, however, organizing the event was not without struggle. “Even though we have a presence at our university through our student organization, there’s still the fact that VR and AR technology are somewhat of a niche topic,” Zhang continued. “We’re also figuring out what we’re supposed to do as we go.”
How does a student organization even plan a fully functional tech conference out of leftover funding and “thin air”, anyway? “In the beginning, it’s about proving our legitimacy,” Kosova explained to me after I asked the pair if they were treated as a true business entity within the immersive tech space.
“When you have just a couple of students reaching out to larger companies, you have to prove why your event is worth their time. We’re students, creating a conference through our student organization which isn’t even two years old. And we’re both underclassmen.”
Zhang and Kosova worked through over four months of planning and setup, along with a team of three other students from their organization, and with assistance from other universities across the country. “From pure passion and hustle we’ve been able to create this thing,” Zhang continued.
“At a lot of other universities, the [student organization would have] already been around for a while so they’d already had all the relationships to get speakers. A lot of them also have a dedicated team—sometimes five to ten people—to basically just plan their conference from the beginning of the school year.”
They both asserted that while organizing the XR Midwest Conference took large quantities of effort and patience, the process of putting it together also created a tremendous amount of value from establishing connections that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
“The main thing we were trying to do with this conference was help form and strengthen this community,” Kosova told me. “We’re taking a bunch of individual companies from all around the midwest. So there’s a perfectly good chance that they’ve never been in the same room together.”
“On the west coast, they have maybe three of these conferences in a month. They have a much larger ecosystem for immersive tech already. One event might not seem like much, but in the midwest, there aren’t that many student organizations [in XR] across the board. So it’s important that we’re doing it.”
The XR Midwest Conference successfully ran for eight hours on April 7 and hosted talks from Ford, SentiAR, Spellbound, BrandXR, TheHiveVR, and more. To other aspirant student organizations who are looking to plan their own conferences but are unsure where to start, Zhang and Kosova offer advice. “Find a professor who’s interested in this, and start building out a small group of people. Just go out and do it.”