Collaboration in Social VR: Building an AltspaceVR world for Earth Day
With just two weeks to go to Earth Day 2019, the AltspaceVR world builder channel on Discord was overflowing with ideas for creating nature-themed worlds to celebrate our planet’s wonders. Through the channel, Jorgen Nelson from Wild Valley Studios in Oregon and myself connected and agreed to collaborate on an educational hub world. In this article, we are documenting our design and collaborative process as a case study for future work and as an invitation to visit and join the conversation.
Statement of Purpose
The Altspace Eco-Information Hub is a mobile VR-friendly world which introduces sustainability-related educational content to younger Altspace audiences and educators in a fun and easily understandable way by guiding them through individually discoverable themes in physical space.
Project Requirements and Design
We decided to aim the space at visitors who wanted to find out how to contribute to conservation and sustainable living, even though they might be urban dwellers. To keep the content accessible, we also wanted to include a fun element to give visitors a sense of achievement. Younger visitors would be able to relate to sustainable living concepts and transfer some of the ideas into real life, while educators would be able to explore the potential of social VR for environmental education.
We created some user stories to focus our content design:
As a casual visitor, I want to browse content at my own pace, so that I can explore what is relevant to me in a fun way.
As a visitor interested in ecology as a topic, I want to browse related worlds, so that I can learn about a topic more in depth.
As a young visitor, I want to see content that I can apply in real life, so that I can actually help the ecological situation.
As an educationalist, I want to encounter content that teaches me how to use AltspaceVR in an educational setting.
As a facilitator, I want to show materials and give a tour of the world so that I can interact with visitors and create a communal learning experience.
In order to make the world usable for visitors with low-to-medium-end devices such as the Oculus Go, we decided to keep the performance mobile-friendly. Both Jorgen and myself used 6DOF headsets to build the world, so we tested with Oculus Go users to check mobile performance.
Altspace also provides a performance diagnostic which helps optimising worlds for mobile use. Here we had to remove a custom kit I made due to the overall kit sizes overstepping the limit:
In terms of spatial organisation, we decided to prioritise the hub function of the world so that visitors could access other creators’ worlds to deepen their understanding of a specific topic.
We iterated on a homepage-like information architecture, where topics are briefly illustrated, but can be explored in more depth by transporting to other worlds and events:
To meet the requirement of creating accessible and relevant content, we distilled some of the topics from the field of regenerative design as initial headlines: Rewilding and Habitat Restoration, Architecture and Energy, and Work and Transport.
Building and Testing
Layout of the world template
To translate the homepage structure into a 3D hub, Jorgen uploaded an Earth template, and I added some land masses from Altspace’s kits to resemble satellite stations, one for each topic. User navigation could be by teleport or flying mode, with each satellite island visible from anywhere in the world. This ensures that users (literally) have an overview of the content and can decide where to visit first.
To make navigation a bit challenging and reaching the satellite island an achievement, we decided not to include a floor, so that visitors have to either teleport accurately via the stepping stones or use fly mode. Adding this dimension of adventure, exploration and challenge heightens motivation, which makes visitors/learners more likely to remember the content they encounter. Testing with visiting friends affirmed that this mode of encountering the content added a sense of discovery — despite falling and re-spawning at times!
Near the spawn point, we created a reception area with an info desk — occupied by a friendly penguin.
Finally, on the centre globe itself, teleportation platforms link to other related worlds, where visitors can explore specific ecological topics in more depth.
Due to performance limitations, we were only able to use a maximum of five AltspaceVR kits, which meant that content design had to be succinct, and “no-frills”. Being able to move individual objects was vital for set dressing, and bringing life to the world was important, as was the narrative of a co-existence between wildlife and humans. From the kits, we chose the Alien World for its land masses, a Nature kit with plants, a Town Environment kit for additional plants and gardens, and a kit with animated animals.
Initial user testing with an Oculus Go showed that keeping the template simple and the kits to the recommended number and sizes had paid off — the world ran smoothly on the mobile headset, and the tester responded positively to the feel of the world and the content, notably the animated animals and the vegetable garden. This positive response was encouraging — the way we designed the layout and content of the world appeared indeed as motivating as we had hoped, and the emotional design of the space was having a positive effect on presence.
Due to the tight performance limits, a custom kit illustrating renewable energy technology had to be removed, but might find itself in a separate world in the near future.
Using the Unity uploader to add content to the template
Jorgen used the template editor liberally, adding as much content as possible, so that we made good use of the 10MB limit for the template size. This allowed us to create a new version of the architecture island, complete with a 3D scan of a cob house in Oregon and avatars to illustrate ideas of community and collaboration.
Reflection and next steps
This short project was our first transcontinental collaboration in VR. We used external media such as Discord and LinkedIn to co-ordinate meet-ups in VR, and to communicate tasks and requirements. In addition, I had to travel just before Earth Day without VR access, so that Jorgen was left in charge of launching the world with the AltspaceVR community.
Since whitelisting users for in-world privileges proved unreliable, sharing access and editing privileges for the world between two creators meant that everyone entering the world could change content and position. We de-listed the world in order to restrict the number of visitors, but on occasion, when left unattended for a day, we had to clean up a little. This problem was relatively limited though, since Jorgen managed to include a lot of the world structure into the template, fixing it in place.
We worked out the requirements early in the process, allowing us to add to the world according to our separate time zones and then catch up via Discord.
While meeting inside the world in AltspaceVR created a pleasant opportunity to walk each other through our respective thought processes, the platform does not provide a lot of space for taking notes and planning activities. Therefore, we documented our conversations in Discord and built more or less separately from each other, which was also an effect of the time differences.
Following this short but successful collaboration and numerous chats in VR, we identified a common interest both in ecological topics and social VR. We are now ideating and prototyping additional worlds to add to the hub, and adding to our circle of collaborators.