Designing for Immersion within Zoom

Experimenting with virtual connection in a time of physical distancing

lance weiler
Columbia DSL


Snap Camera enables AR filters and animations within Zoom


Until recently video conferencing was something that one avoided. However in this time of physical distancing what was once a secondary form of communication has been thrust to the forefront. At Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab (aka Columbia DSL) we’ve been using Zoom for a few years in a variety of ways. From online courses to global design challenges to social games and workshops, we’ve harnessed a variety of features found within the platform.

We’ve seen an explosion of virtual events since much of public life has migrated online. Most of the events we’ve noticed fall into one of two categories: conference and talks — where the audience can participate mostly through text based chat, and social gatherings like happy hours, dinners and dance parties — which have been used to keep people connected. We were interested in designing a third kind, somewhere in between: a gathering where people can come together and experience the warmth of a large group with the intimacy of having meaningful interactions with strangers, wrapped in an opportunity to learn, do and share.

The following is a collection of resources, thoughts and potential use cases for those looking to design connected experiences in this time of physical distancing. The article is split into two sections. The first provides an example of how we utilized Zoom for a recent gathering and the second focuses on how Zoom works.

SECTION ONE: An example of immersion within Zoom

Columbia DSL recently kicked off a series of “From the Futures” virtual gatherings in collaboration with Fake Artists, Minkowski and Beautiful Seams. Overtime these gatherings will evolve into a global collaboration focused on speculative design, social impact and open creativity. We’ll be adding more collaborators over the coming weeks and months. If you’re interested in getting involved sign up to our newsletter for updates.

Our next: “From the Futures” gathering will take place Thursday, April 9th at 1:30 pm Eastern Time — signup to get updates

Every two weeks we meet virtually. Sessions are broken into a format that consists of three sections — Learn, Do and Share. A mixture of talks, workshops and the sharing of work and practice.

Platforms: Zoom + Google Docs
Number of participants: 144
Number of breakout rooms: 30 to 50
Running time: 2:20
Countries represented: 30

The framing of the first event focused on “Social Dreaming.” The following is the description that was shared with participants.

We are living in an extreme present, one that threatens to command all our energies, extinguish the future and our imagination along with it. But times of volatility can be precisely the right time to take a deep breath, virtually hold hands and lift our heads up to look just beyond the horizon. What ugly things got us here that we were unwilling to look in the eye? What faulty structures are revealing themselves to us across different domains? What emergent behaviors have you observed that have given you hope and that you feel are worthwhile hanging onto once we return to more stable realities?

Instead of just hoping to return to our old normal, what would it mean to collectively muster our courage, creativity and resilience to plant seeds now that would take us down different and more desirable paths once we emerge from this pandemic?

Columbia DSL explores new forms and functions of storytelling by harnessing the power of story, design, play and emergent technology. We believe that stories have the power to change the world and that those stories should be told and shared by a diverse group of voices. Therefore our methods embrace participatory design, burst collaboration and shared imagination. The following is a recent example of a Zoom session to give you a sense of the possibilities.

Agenda for the session

SHARE / Introduction: (10min)
DO / Breakout Session 1: (20min)
LEARN / Talks 1 & 2: (15min)
DO / Breakout Session 2: (15min)
LEARN / Talk 3: (12min)
DO/ Drawing Exercise: (5 min)
SHARE/ Share Drawings: (5 min)
SHARE/ Moving Towards Action (10min)

After starting with a brief introduction that established the goals of the event, we explained that the format for our 2+ hours together consisted of talks and breakout sessions. Woven in between were opportunities to share work (outputs from breakouts) as well as updates from an artist who was “live drawing” as the session progressed (see virtual wayfinding section below).

2 or 3 participants were then broken into breakout rooms where they engaged in a 5x why exercise. We often use 5x why as a way to connect participants in our events as it’s a wonderful ice breaker that is also an active listening exercise. This has particular value within a virtual space as it helps to establish a tone encouraging participants to listen with intention.

After about 15 minutes everyone returned from their breakout rooms to the main session within Zoom. At this point a number of ignite talks (5 to 7 minutes in length) were staged where guest speakers utilized the “share screen” feature to present their slides. The talks were directly related to and helped setup the breakout session that would follow.

Ignite Talk #1
“Making History by Changing the Future”
Jorgen van der Sloot, co-founder Minkowski

Ignite Talk #2
Collective Imaginaries
Romy Nehme, founder Beautiful Seams & Columbia DSL member

Teams of 4 to 5 where placed within breakout rooms for an exercise designed to have them generate questions for the future. This started in the present with participants sharing things that they found unbearable and then shifted to them considering how those negatives could be flipped to a positive.

For the positive perspective they where asked to form a design question starting with the phrase “How might we…”. As participants returned from their breakout rooms they placed each of their design questions into the main session’s group chat. [Note: Zoom has a feature that enables you to download all the chat activity across a session]

Example of a design question that was placed within the chat

How might we redesign education both spatially and cognitively for students to participate fully in an evolving society — to nurture the imagination and the world of possibilities?

Click here to see all the Design Questions generated by collaborators during the March 26th session.

Once everyone was back in the main session we moved into our third ignite talk. Within this talk we modeled how design questions could be turned into artifacts for the future.

Ignite Talk #3
Matthieu Lorrain co-founder Fake Artists

The talk highlighted COVID19 and presented future artifacts such as user manuals, virus forecasts, preventative testing measures and home 3D printing setups. The goal was to foreshadow future sessions and give participants a sense of how we’ll collaborate to co-create future artifacts that will be focused on short and longer term action.

Participants hold up design questions and drawings. Examples of future artifacts from Matthieu Lorrain, Damjan Pita & Andrey Smirny and the final live drawing (bottom left) of the session by Herman Weeda

As the session was ending participants were asked to choose a design question that they felt connected or drawn to. Once participants made their selection they were prompted to write the question at the top of a blank piece of paper and then under it visualize how that question made them feel.

How might we realign our collective assumptions and personal rules for how we go about our lives, given this opportunity to take a full stop as humans?

Drawing by Dana “Doc” Martin of Speculative Futures NYC

This provided an opportunity for participants to reflect on our collective present — a moment when the world is physical distancing. As the exercise ended participants were asked to hold their drawings up. We took a series of snap shots. It was a powerful collective moment as over a hundred design questions and drawings were displayed. As we continue these virtual “Futures Dreaming” gatherings we’ll embrace the design questions as a way to establish themes for our collaborative exploration.

The session concluded with us reviewing the live drawing that had been created over the course of the event. This reflected an important social moment within the experience as the drawing transformed int a map of our collective journey over the previous 2+ hours.

Live Drawing by Herman Weeda of

Physical Distancing Playlist

In an exit form we asked participants for feedback on the event. One question we asked was for people to share a song that brought them comfort in this time of physical distancing. Over time we’ll continue to add songs. You can find the playlist here.

Our next: “From the Futures” gathering will take place Thursday, April 9th at 1:30 pm Eastern Time — signup to get updates

SECTION TWO: Working with Zoom

[UPDATE: Below you’ll find info related to privacy and security issues as well as zoombombing]

Zoom can be a bit overwhelming at first glance but with experimentation you can start to find your way around the platform. There are a ton of features within Zoom. Below I’ll try to highlight the ones that can help you host engaging and immersive gatherings.

While it is possible to do much of what is mentioned within this article with a single person it can be helpful to have someone take on the technical facilitation of Zoom. This is especially true if you are assembling larger numbers of people and intend to utilize the “breakout room” feature.

Breakout Rooms

There are two areas within Zoom the “main space” where everyone gathers and “breakout rooms.” The latter is one of the more exciting features of the platform and well worth the extra effort. When participants are assigned a breakout room either manually or automatically the platform removes participants from the main area and places them in a breakout room.

Main space within Zoom. The yellow highlight signifies the individual speaking

Even though you can grant your team the role of “co-hosts” to assist with management of the platform, only the “host” can create/close/recreate and assign participants to breakout rooms.

Once participants are within the breakout room you as a “host” or “co-host” cannot easily communicate with them. This is because chat functionality within breakout rooms only works within that specific breakout room. Which means to communicate you’ll need to do one or more of the following.

  1. Participants within the breakout room can press the “ask for help” button and the “host” will see a message — not the “co-hosts.” At which point the host can enter the breakout room.
  2. You can create the breakout room and select the “leave breakout room” function which enables participants to exit and return to the main area in order to ask for help. However when the participants wants to return they have to click on the “return to breakout room” function. The “host” can not help them return.
  3. You can establish a back channel such as a 3rd party Chat app or a collaborative document ie: a Google Doc.

Breakout Room Settings
To ensure smooth transitions from the breakout rooms back to the main session make sure to set a countdown so that participants will be cued that the room will be closing. Otherwise when you end the breakout rooms they will close abruptly.

Messaging breakout rooms

When you’ve created your breakout rooms as “host” you’ll have the ability to send two sentence or less messages. These messages will be broadcast to all the breakout rooms and will appear at the top of each participants’ screen in a green text box.

Once you’ve created the rooms

If people enter your session late the best way to have them join a breakout room that is already established is to use the “waiting room” function. This catches the participant prior to them entering the overall session ie: the main area. If you don’t assign them a breakout room at that point then you won’t be able to, unless you close all the breakout rooms and recreate them again.

Sharing Screens

We often use the share screen feature and leave it accessible so that all participants can share screens. But you can also make it so only the host has that permission. In the past we’ve used screen sharing when someone is giving a lecture so that everyone can see their slides. There’s a nice annotation feature and whiteboard that enables you to draw, highlight or type.

Virtual Backgrounds

You can easily upload and select backgrounds to use within Zoom. We’ve used virtual backgrounds to establish themes, connect teams, play games and also way to tell stories. The only consideration is the version of the software you’re using and your own systems software and hardware configuration.

Augmented Reality in Zoom

Snap Camera is a free download. You can create your own AR lenses or browse existing ones.

Snap Camera is a free download. You’ll need to open it first and then start Zoom. Under your camera settings within Zoom you’ll see an option to use Snap Camera. To change AR lenses you’ll need to do it within Snap Camera and then it will appear within Zoom.

If you’re interested in creating your own AR lenses you can do that within Lens Studio.

VR in Zoom

Spaces enables participants to join video calls in VR

Spaces is a new PC VR app that acts as a VR bridge to a number of video conferencing solutions. Developed over the last few weeks as a result of COVID19, the team at Spaces wanted to enable participants of Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Facebook Messenger to enter video calls in VR.

Avoiding Zoombombing

Trolls will be trolls. Zoombombing is on the rise. Recently trolls disrupted class at USC. Tips to avoid being trolled.

  • Don’t use your Personal Meeting ID instead generate one specifically for the Zoom session
  • You can set a password that participants are required to enter
  • Avoid posting your Zoom link on social media
  • Change the default share screen setting from all participants to host
  • Make use of the “waiting room” feature that was discussed earlier
  • Review how to manage participants

When scheduling a meeting:
- Generate Meeting ID Automatically — unique meeting IDs expire 30 days after the meeting has occurred and provides protection if a meeting ID was shared accidentally to a public audience.
- Require Meeting Password — passwords should not be shared outside of intended participants.
- Enable Waiting Room — review attendees before admitting them to the meeting. For large classes or conferences, consider assigning this job to a co-host.

During a meeting:
- Mute all — as the host, you can mute all in the participant pane. You can also stop participants from unmuting themselves, and instead ask them to use chat for questions. For large classes or conferences, consider assigning this job to a co-host.
- Lock Meeting — this will stop all new participants from joining a meeting.
- Set screen sharing to host only — under advanced sharing, stop others from sharing in the meeting. As a host, you can still grant individuals the ability to share in the participant pane.
- Allow participants to chat with host only — available from the chat pane, you can lock chat to host or public and host.
- Disable annotation — If you are sharing content, through the More option, disable attendee annotation.

Recording a meeting:
- Sensitive information should not be recorded, typed into a meeting description, or any other text field that may be stored within Zoom.
- Always advise attendees that they are being recorded.
- Record active speaker with shared screen, not Gallery view.
- Spotlight video to lock the active speaker to the presenter and uncheck ‘Display participants’ names in the recording.

You can find addition steps and protections to take here.

Recording settings

Zoom enables sessions to be recorded to locally to your system or to the cloud where they can be viewed later by visiting the “recordings” tab in your admin dashboard. The following are a few settings for participants and hosts to give you better quality video and sound.

Participant settings
Step 1: Once you are in and see your face on screen, you will select the top left menu, “Zoom.US”

Step 2: Under “Zoom.US”, you will then select “preferences” and zoom should open a new window (see screenshots).

Step 3: In the preferences section, select the “Video” option and use the screenshot to select the correct boxes

  • 16:9
  • Enable HD
  • Mirror My Video
  • Hide Non-Video Participants
  • Spotlight my video when speaking

Host settings
Step 1: Select preferences again

Step 2: Select where you want your recordings to be stored

Step 3: Select the following settings:

  • Record a separate audio file for each participant
  • Optimize for 3rd party video editor

Zoom allows you to record to your desktop or the cloud however that’s limited to 720p. If you’d like to record at 1080p you can use a 3rd party solution such as OBS which is a free and open source software for video recording and live streaming.

Virtual Wayfinding

Within a virtual space having a mechanism for wayfinding can be valuable. We try to document what’s happening not only as a record of the event but also because it helps to establish a shared narrative. Real-time sketching can be a wonderful way to capture an experience. Here’s an example from our recent “Speculative Design & Social Dreaming” gathering. Over the course of the event we added moments to the agenda where the artist could share the progress of the drawing which worked as a wonderful way to recap key concepts from previous talks and exercises.

Live Drawing by Herman Weeda of

Security, Privacy and other Considerations

The Intercept recently reported… “ZOOM, THE video conferencing service whose use has spiked amid the Covid-19 pandemic, claims to implement end-to-end encryption, widely understood as the most private form of internet communication, protecting conversations from all outside parties. In fact, Zoom is using its own definition of the term, one that lets Zoom itself access unencrypted video and audio from meetings.”

In the following post Zoom speaks to the issues that have been raised and shares the action they are taking to address them.

In conclusion

This is an interesting time for experimentation. Zoom was built with a certain series of use cases in mind. From our collective experience of physical distancing the constraints and affordances of these existing video conferencing and collaborative solutions will be challenged. The result of which presents an opportunity to help shape our virtual tools of the future. Not only in the features or functionality but within the core principles that we value. In other words this is a time when humanity, creativity and true connection can lead the way. It will be exciting to see what new platforms and solutions emerge in the next 18 months as a result of this moment in time.

Collaborators Wanted

If you’re interested in collaborating or would like to have Columbia DSL design an online program for your organization please drop us a line.

About Columbia DSL

Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab (aka Columbia DSL) designs stories for the 21st Century. We build on a diverse range of creative and research practices originating in fields from the arts, humanities and technology. But we never lose sight of the power of a good story. Technology, as a creative partner, has always shaped the ways in which stories are found and told. In the 21st Century, for example, the mass democratization of creative tools — code, data and algorithms — have changed the relationship between creator and audience. Columbia DSL, therefore, is a place of speculation, of creativity, and of collaboration between students and faculty from across the University. New stories are told here in new and unexpected ways.

Join Columbia faculty and industry innovators as we explore the current and future landscape of digital storytelling.



lance weiler
Columbia DSL

Storyteller working with Code - Founding member & Director of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab - curates @creativemachines