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.

Creating Virtual Learning Spaces Using Mozilla Hubs at the New School

The New School, a private university in New York City, has recently launched a program using the social VR platform Mozilla Hubs as a component of classes. This is an initiative of the New School’s XReality Center, a new research centre and testbed with four core components:

  1. Immersive Learning: Create a resource hub for inspiring XR initiatives within the university with the focus on developing new learning models, design, storytelling, performing arts and the future of learning;
  2. XR and HCI Labs: Learn, design and experience what immersive worlds, XR and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) interfaces offer through our workshops, events, virtual and lab environments;
  3. Research: Lead and conduct research to create new knowledge and better understand the efficacy and impact of immersive and emerging technology in education and across industries; and
  4. Partnerships: Develop XR projects and products with internal and external clients and partners.

Starting in 2020, the XReality Centre began a program to create virtual spaces using Mozilla Hubs to enhance the learning experience:

Starting in Spring 2020, the XReality Center has embarked on creating a set of virtual spaces in Mozilla Hubs as a way to enhance student engagement and provide new opportunities for collaboration. During the fall semester the XReality Center will host virtual events, class visits and other social activities in these spaces. The XReality Center is interested in partnering with faculty, programs, schools, and administrative departments to develop and offer virtual teaching and learning initiatives.

The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021 (available to download here), recently published by the Immersive Learning Research Network, describes one such application:

In a year marked by lack of access to VR labs, Mozilla Hubs gave opportunities for students to use collaborative tools and explore creating together in social worlds. At Parsons School of Design in Fall 2020, over 100 students enrolled in the Immersive Storytelling course met weekly in Mozilla Hubs to co-create virtual narratives, play, and build worlds.

Inspired by the work at the XR and HCI Innovation Labs at The New School, faculty and students from across the Parsons Art Media, Technology, and Fashion schools exhibited their 3D models and presented projects in virtual galleries using audio, video, and an abundance of student creativity. While students acknowledge the limitations of the Mozilla Hub interface, most reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to be in a shared space. One of the students summed it up: “I think it is very fun to be in a virtual world, for me it is a place where I can explore my ideas that may not be possible to create in the real world.”

Four examples of student-created worlds from the Immersive Storytelling course at The New School’s Parsons School of Design (image source: iLRN State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021)

The use of a simple, accessible platform such as Mozilla Hubs makes it easy for the university to try new things more quickly and easily, without making a massive investment of time and money in building their own platform. I believe that we can expect to see more institutions of higher education set up programs similar to the New School’s XReality Center, as a way to incorporate XR technology in the courses they teach.

Ask Ryan: What Are Some Easy Non-VR Alternatives to Zoom for Our Social Hangouts?

As my blog becomes more and more popular over time, I often receive questions from my readers about social VR and virtual worlds. In many cases, I think the questions—and my answers!—are worth sharing, so I have decided to start up a brand new category of blogposts, tagged “Ask Ryan“. Every so often, I will post a query and attempt to provide the best, most comprehensive answer I can.

Recently, I got the following message from Gavin via my Contact Me page:

Hi Ryan, I came across your website while researching Zoom alternatives. I don’t own a VR headset (although I would very much like to) and neither do many of my friends. I think we all agree that while Zoom is serviceable as far as work meetings are concerned, it’s a terrible option for social hangouts. In my mind, the issue of proximity is key. At a real party, multiple conversations can take place simultaneously. People are able to focus on one speaker by using proximity. The use of avatars seems like a pretty obvious fix. The question is: which app/software is doing this best already? Most of my friends aren’t gamers or techie types, so they would probably be turned off by anything in a highly stylized graphic environment. They also don’t own VR headsets and ease of use is critical. I’d like to just be able to text then a link or ask them to download a free app on their phone to make it work. I’ve been searching high and low for the ideal app that meets these criteria but just can’t seem to find it. What would you recommend? Thanks for your help!


Glad you asked, Gavin!

One non-VR platform you should definitely look at is the new High Fidelity*, which is a two-dimensional flat-screen app with three-dimensional audio that is perfect for your needs! You and your friends will probably have to use headphones or earbuds to really appreciate the spatial audio, which I’m sure you already have. The sound also falls off as you move away from the speaker, allowing you to break off into small groups and have many smaller conversations taking place at once. Here is their website, where you can learn more about the product.

Another platform you should investigate is Mozilla Hubs, which like the new High Fidelity runs completely in your web browser. You don’t even need to set up a user account to use Hubs! Here are all my blogposts tagged Mozilla Hubs.

Finally, there is a brand new, procedurally generated virtual world called Jel, which is also completely browser-based and would probably also suit your needs nicely.

Two avatars chatting in Jel

There are certainly many other virtual worlds you have a non-VR mode which could use for socializing, such as Second Life, Sinespace, VirBELA, etc., but they are not as quick and easy to use as these three platforms I have mentioned. Second Life, in particular, has a notoriously steep learning curve compared to the simplicity of Jel, Mozilla Hubs, and the new High Fidelity.

*not to be confused with the now-shuttered social VR platform High Fidelity, which required a high-end virtual reality headset connected to a Windows PC with a good graphics card

Wolf3D’s Ready Player Me Creates a 3D Avatar for Mozilla Hubs from a Selfie

Some examples of avatars created using Ready Player Me

Wolf3D, a company that specializes in making personal 3D avatars for games and virtual worlds, has released a new browser-based program called Ready Player Me. Ready Player Me allows you to create a personalized 3D avatar for use in Mozilla Hubs, using as your starting point a single selfie from your cellphone or webcam!

(You might remember Wolf3D as the creators of a mobile app called Virtual You, which High Fidelity released to create a 3D avatar for use on the now-closed social VR platform. This app was withdrawn from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store when HiFi essentially ceased operations on Jan. 15th, 2020.)

Using Ready Player Me could not be easier. Simply visit the website, click on the blue Create Avatar button to get started, and take (or upload) a selfie. You are then given an array of options to change your skin, hair, eye and eyebrow colour, and hairstyle, facial hair, shirt and eyeglasses. After only a few minutes, here is what I was able to come up with:

Once you are satisfied, just click the checkmark in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, and it saves the avatar, giving you a URL which you should bookmark somewhere for later use and re-use.

To use your newly-created avatar in Mozilla Hubs, open a world, click on the three-bars menu in the upper left-hand corner, and click on Set Name & Avatar:

On the Name & Avatar screen, click on Browse Avatars:

On the Browse Avatars screen, click on Avatar GLB URL in the upper right-hand corner of your screen:

Enter the URL you received from Ready Player Me, and click Accept:

That’s it! Here’s what my customized avatar looks like in Mozilla Hubs:

I am hoping that we will see Wolf3D-made avatars pop up in other social VR and virtual worlds! It’s such an easy way for somebody to create a personalized avatar.

P.S. Starting with this blogpost, I have created a new category called Mozilla Hubs, since I find myself writing about this platform more often. I will try to go back and add my older blogposts about Mozilla Hubs to this category, but that is going to take a little time, so please bear with me!