Melanie Garson14 December 2021

 

Metaverse frenzy has taken over my newsfeeds.  From Bill Gates predictions’ that work meetings will take place in the metaverse within 2-3 years to Barbados’ virtual embassy, worlds virtual and real are exploding with questions as to our decentralised futures. Last year, seeking new paths to provide a more realistic experience for my negotiation course that had to be taught fully online, I experimented with running part of my course on the virtual platform VIRbela facilitated by The Avid Partnership. Whilst I didn’t quite collect the 3000 hours of data that Bailenson at Stanford has managed to collect with his first class taught entirely in VR, this is my story of designing and running teaching on a digital twin campus. If you missed the first instalment, you can check it out here.

Lesson 2: Metaverse Netflix & Chill

After spending (wasting?) a fair amount of time in VIRbela’s wardrobe department, I have finally found the right boots in the virtual wardrobe and sorted out my hairstyle – my questions on why it seemed to be so important for me to look like myself somewhat answered by Yee & Bailenson’s research on  the Proteus Effect  and how self-representation in virtual worlds affects behaviour.  This meant that I was now ready to invite my students to join me into our virtual department 29 TaVIRstock Square. 

Following the advice of what was fast becoming my VR teaching bible, Baker, Wentz & Woods, I wanted to give the students a chance to feel comfortable on the virtual platform before it was used for teaching.  And what better way to do that than hosting a movie night.

Movie night is usually one of the highlights of my modules, for both the students and myself.   Usually, in an evening at around Week 3, it gives me the chance to get to know the class more informally and for them to get to know each other.  I find that this is really important in my negotiation modules as it breaks perceptions students might have formed about each other after the first couple of weeks negotiating. 

But, beyond the lack of popcorn, pizza and wine, Netflix and chill via another Zoom call at the end of the day did not seem a particularly enticing prospect.  Movie night on a VR platform, however, where you can feel that you are walking into a room, take a seat, chat to your neighbour and spontaneously break out into a little Samba – now that could be a bonding experience!

As you can imagine, in what was becoming a theme throughout the 2020/2021 academic year, it did not quite go to plan!

Whilst VIRbela had hosted an incredible company virtual Christmas party complete with DJ Jazzy Jeff (of Fresh Prince of Bel Air fame), comedy nights and lectures, they had not yet tried streaming a movie. This is where my naïve vision of my students sashaying down a virtual red carpet to enjoy a movie in the metaverse began to be challenged!

I had assumed that I would be able to share my screen, like I could do with lecture slides, and stream the movie from my computer, however, that didn’t seem to quite work. 

If you thought that those days when you walk into a lecture theatre and all the wires are in a jumble and you can’t find the HDMI cable to connect your laptop, so you have to frantically start transferring files to key drives whilst appearing effortlessly cool and in control are problematic, then this took it to a new level. It was a tech Rubik’s cube – if the picture worked, the sound didn’t or vice versa.  Expertise in interpersonal conflict resolution and problem-solving hit its limits in the face of virtual platform technology. 

I won’t go into the tedious details of how we resolved the issue and the numerous practice runs, suffice to say movie night was on!!

So having sent my students detailed instructions, troubleshooting instructions, emergency email addresses, popcorn and cocktail recipes, and arranged for the people on the reception as they arrive to be ready to direct them, I stood in the virtual auditorium awaiting their arrival.

The excitement of watching their names pop up on the screen and see the students walk into the virtual auditorium soon turned to hilarity, as they tried to navigate picking a seat and sitting down, and stopping themselves breaking out their Gangnam style moves.

This was accompanied by the barrage of emails on my other computer from students with access issues, resulting in me having to try to juggle effortlessly cool conversation with the students in the virtual auditorium whilst liaising with students and the VIRbela team to help get everyone onto the platform. Metaverse multi-tasking was a little mind-bending and quite exhausting!

Eventually, having resolved the sound and spontaneous standing issues, I was finally able to press play, sit down and relax with my popcorn (okay drink!).

Everything was seemingly going to plan, and I was really enjoying being able to message the class on the chat as they watched, highlighting scenes where I wanted them to pay particular attention, or  to ask questions about the on-screen action…and then, of course, came the curved ball!

The movie stopped!

The solution?

Each student avatar had to walk up to the screen in the auditorium and press on the play button for themselves to get it started again.

Once I had a chance to look up from the frantic messaging across two computers and a telephone that it took to find this solution, I must admit it was a little funny.

A line of avatars which have not quite navigated the process of manoeuvring themselves without bumping into virtual objects, queuing up to press play on a virtual screen and then returning to their virtual seats!

However, this now meant that everyone was now at a different point in the movie, and I could no longer message the class with questions and scene notes without spoiling the film for those further behind! So, with my pedagogical plans derailed …I just had to sit back and enjoy the movie and my well-deserved drink (I mean popcorn!).

It was a movie night like no other! And whilst I hope to be back cursing at missing HDMI cables for this year’s movie screening, Covid variants seem to have other ideas… so if I find myself again hosting movie night in the metaverse, this is what I’d better remember:

 

  • Set aside a good chunk of time to test and make sure everything is working. This will always take more time than expected!
  • Rope in someone to help monitor email whilst trying to interact in the virtual platform.  It does not matter how many troubleshooting guides you send someone will not be able to get in and need help!
  • Maintain a sense of humour – something will go wrong!

 

Join me next month when I share the trials and tribulations of pre-virtual lecture onboarding!

(PS. I have not named the movie so as not to spoil it for the upcoming cohort who will be watching the same movie!)

 

Dr Melanie Garson has been teaching in the Department of Political Science at UCL since 2011.  She is also the Internet Policy Lead in the Technology and Public Policy Department of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change where she focuses on cybersecurity policy as well as the intersection of technology and foreign policy. If you are interested in coming to meet me in my virtual office, please don’t hesitate to reach out at m.garson@ucl.ac.uk.