Using Social VR to Teach an Emerging Technologies Class at UNC Chapel Hill

Steven King is an associate professor of multimedia journalism and emerging technologies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, holding a joint appointment with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and the Kenan-Flagler Business School. In his work, King combines computer science concepts, human-centered design and storytelling to create new ways to present information through emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other interactive media forms, such as interactive data-driven graphics.

Steven King uses AltspaceVR to deliver a virtual course (image source)

When the university was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Steven used both Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR to create a virtual classroom for his students:

If you ask a UNC student what their remote classroom experience has consisted of, they will likely tell you about video lectures through Zoom. But for students in Steven King’s class, they are experiencing remote learning differently — through virtual reality.

“I’m always trying to figure out a better way to teach and communicate,” King, a professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said. “I know virtual reality is an immersive experience.”

King built a virtual 3D version of his classroom, which allows his students to walk around in the classroom and break out into groups. 

He said he has tested out a lot of different platforms for hosting 3D classrooms. The first experience, he said, was through Mozilla Hubs. But King said his class will likely stick to AltspaceVR because of how pleased the students have been with it.

A virtual classroom in AltspaceVR (image source)

The Raleigh News & Observer reported:

“When you’re faced with a crisis, these are times to step up and figure things up and make new discoveries,” King said. “We don’t need to limit ourselves to the tools we have. We need to develop new tools to move us forward.”

King sent Oculus Go Virtual Reality headsets to his 28 students to use at home. King and the students built their own avatars, and they are all attending class together in a virtual world as robots, panda bears, ducks and other characters. King chose the superhero Ironman as his avatar.

The emerging technologies class was tailor-made for this type of experiment, King said. Students had become familiar with the technology throughout the semester while learning about artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Steven wrote about his experience developing and delivering the course in a four-part series of Medium posts (here’s a link to part one). He described how he acclimated his students to AltspaceVR:

To help the students prepare for class. I gave the students an assignment to be completed before the first class hosted in AltspaceVR. I asked every student to signup for an account, go through the tutorial in their home space, and to go to the InfoZone, which is a tutorial in the form of a social fair about going to events. The final step of the assignment was to send me a friend request. I also recorded a video on how to enter the room/event…

This assignment was critical to the success of the next class. I needed the students to work through any technical issues on their own and to feel confident in another social VR environment. Once I got a friend request, I added them to the group so they could see the private event…

Most students arrived early and were ready to go. I let them spend several minutes interacting and exploring the space. There was lots of personal chatting, like I would see before an in-person class, which has been absent in my Zoom class.

The pandemic provided a golden opportunity which professors like Steven used to good advantage to provide their students with an introduction to social VR used for educational purposes. You can find out more about Steven and his work via his personal website.

Editorial: Sansar’s Overly Attached (Ex-)Girlfriend, Responsible Journalism, and My Obligations to My Readers

Hi, this is Ryan. Remember me? I’m Sansar’s overly attached (ex-)girlfriend:

Overly Attached Girlfriend Meme (Wikipedia)

Yes, I can laugh about it, today. But only because I’ve also had a really good cry about it this week. By all reports, the Sansar project is struggling, and I’m still feeling devastated and upset at the news.

I’ve written before about my soft spot/blind spot when it came to Sansar, after I responded so strongly to the first big layoff of staff in October 2019, flip-flopping back and forth like a fish out of water about whether or not to continue writing about the social VR platform, which of course was my whole reason to start this blog in the first place. (And yes, I’m still flip-flopping, obviously. But I will not be writing about anything currently going on at Linden Lab with respect to Sansar, beyond what I have already reported. Expect nothing but radio silence on that matter.)

The backlash to my blogpost about the second round of layoffs (including a fair share of hate messages), triggered a downward spiral where I landed up spending a good chunk of this week lying in bed, in a black pit of depression out of which I am only now starting to crawl.*

Chic Aeon (whose level-headed, no-nonsense perspective I value highly) wrote about what happened this week on her popular blog:

Ryan took a lot of heat for that blog post — some from Sansar Discord account holders. He followed with an apology and last night he stated that he was closing his blog.

I can’t say that I applaud his blogging methodology; it certainly wasn’t responsible journalism. Ryan has stated (via Discord) that he is not a journalist, only a blogger. But that isn’t cutting it with me. We are ALL responsible for what we say and what we do — as well as the manner in which we do it.  That being said, the “facts” put forth in his article have not been officially refuted as of this writing and I have publicly defended him on that count.  That same public — and especially the people in Sansar — do have a right to know what is going on. I hope that Ryan rethinks his position on closing.

Yes, I have indeed rethought my position on shutting down this blog. I have been heartened by the small outpouring of support and encouragement I have received this week from numerous people, including one very well-timed pep talk from Lorelle VanFossen, blogging evangelist and organizer of the Educators in VR group, when I was ready to pull out of speaking at their upcoming conference. (Thanks, Lorelle.) The overwhelming message I got back was that people did not want to see me stop blogging. So I won’t.

And, of course, Chic is absolutely correct. Whether or not I call myself a journalist is beside the point; what matters is how I do my job as a blogger, and I made several grievous errors in judgement this week. I rushed to publish a story without taking into consideration its potential impact to Sansar users, Sansar content creators, and Linden Lab employees. I should have reached out to Linden Lab for a comment before publishing the story, particularly to double-check that Sansar was indeed shutting down (as I had originally, and erroneously, reported).

I fucked up royally, and I’m sorry.

I realize now that I have an obligation to you, my blog readers, to get the facts of the story correct, and to provide as many different perspectives as possible in covering that story. I know that many of you come to this blog to get your news about social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse—I now get between 600 and 6,000 views per day—and I have a duty to use that growing power and influence responsibly. This is not just a hobby blog, not any longer. I am a journalist, whether I like it or not.

And my talk next Saturday at the Educators in VR conference will be slightly different from what I originally planned. The moderators have given me permission to talk about whatever I like, so in addition to speaking about social VR and libraries, I will also share some lessons learned the hard way in my two-and-a-half years of writing this blog. Think of it as two talks for the price of one!

And I will slowly be easing back into blogging over the next two weeks. I still think that I need to take a break, but of course the world does not stop. February 20th, 2020 will see both the official public launch of Decentraland and the relaunch of version 2.0 of Somnium Space, for example. I will try to report on various news and events as they happen.

And thank you to all the people who did reach out to me, to express their concern, constructive criticism, encouragement, wisdom, unbiased third-party perspective, and support. Sometimes it takes a crisis to find out who your friends and supporters are, and it would appear I have many that I did not realize I had gained over the past 2-1/2 years. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

I’ll be all right. The blog will continue.

*It didn’t help matters that, over the past three weeks, I had taken on the extra burden of blogging daily updates about the Wuhan coronavirus (also known as 2019-nCov and then COVID-19), in an effort to get people to begin to prepare for a potential global pandemic. I worked and worried myself into an anxious, doom-porn-addicted, stressed-out mess, and as a result I took this blog into a very weird tangent that confused a lot of my regular readers. Lesson learned. I’m sorry.

I will leave the pandemic advice and counsel to the many experts out there. I don’t need to become the world’s self-appointed saviour from this coronavirus. (As some of my sassy gay friends would tell me: “Get off the cross, honey. People need the wood.” 😉 )