VR Chat, the virtual reality social application, has been used to deliver one of the first university lectures through virtual reality. We talk to developer Jesse Joudrey about the project.
Remote, Immersive Education
Despite my belief that VR is a platform capable of changing the world and altering or enhancing everyday events, the pace at which this is all actually happening continues to amaze me.
World of Comenius, which we covered recently, edged into new territory with its innovative approach to teaching biology in schools. Yesterday we wrote about the Dreamporte project, which aims to bring the wonders of the world to the disadvantages through donated immersive VR video.
Now, the popular VR social application VR Chat has pushed yet more boundaries with an event at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where it was the driving technology used to deliver one of the first ever university lectures given to remote, Oculus Rift-equipped students—all in virtual reality.
As regular users of the application will know, VR Chat provides virtual online chat ‘spaces’ into which people can project themselves with the aid of an Oculus Rift VR headset. They can speak and interact with other VR users, represented by their chosen (often customised) avatar. When done right, such online gatherings elevate the usual telepresence experience from the likes of Skype and Facetime to an often uncanny level, regardless of how crude images and videos viewed outside of VR may appear.
For this event, practising lawyer and lecturer in Game Law, Jon Festinger Q.C, delivered a fully accredited course (‘UBC Law 423B’ detail fans) at the University, as he normally would. This time however, his gestures and voice were being captured by a carefully placed Kinect 2 (the depth and gesture camera developed for Microsoft’s Xbox One). Captured data was then mapped to an avatar resembling Festinger which was placed into a VR Chat space, constructed to resemble a lecture theatre. Captured audio was likewise broadcast into the space synchronously alongside the avatar and its movements. Finally, copies of the class slides were projected onto a virtual screen behind the lecturer and switched in sync with the class.
And the students?
“We handed out 5 DK2s to students the week before with some instructions on how to configure them. They took them home to set them up,” said Jesse Joudrey (aka jespionage), developer of VR Chat. “Half the students from the class were in the authentic-reality class looking and listening to the prof directly. The others were in a room one floor up [using VR Chat] so Graham could give technical support if the experience broke. The students got the full experience of attending the class; his voice, mannerisms, appearance and the lecture information.”
Reactions to the virtual lecture, as you can see from the video above, were overwhelmingly positive. One student observes that presenting the class in VR actually enhanced attentiveness. Joudrey was pleased with the success of the event and the reactions it produced
“For the students, this wasn’t just a tech demo,” he said. “They thought VR was an effective way to attend a lecture and that they had learned the material they were supposed to. They’d do it again.”
Of course, we’re on the cutting edge here, so there’s lots of room for improvement. Joudrey alludes to an obvious issue that I’d not considered “They lacked the ability to take notes. This is actually a pretty big problem.” A physical limitation then, but solvable. “It could be solved with a dim window on the bottom of the HMD to see authentic reality when you look down, or note taking could be brought into the virtual-reality. Someone’s going to have to solve this for almost all business and educational uses.” In the meantime, there’s VR Typing Trainer.
Finally, if some of Jon Festinger’s gesticulations seem a little ‘funky’, Joudrey notes one final, technical issue: “We’ve really got to compensate for some of the Kinect camera’s shortcomings when we try this again.”
So with a big success for the VR Chat team and a positive response from the students, will they return? “…yes, plans are underway to do this again. The students would love to have us come back next term and we’re in talks with another Vancouver school to get them involved as well.”