MURAL XR
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MURAL XR

MURAL’s Adventure in the Collaborative Frontiers of XR

In June of 2022, MURAL set off on an adventure in creating virtual worlds of collaboration, connection, and creativity in the Horizon Worlds platform with a 2-week public collaborative “games for work” jam.

At its core, MURAL is a company whose mission is to connect people with each other, with their inner creativity, and to facilitate collaboration so that the great, wonderful, and hopeful ideas people have make it into the world. The digital collaboration Mural canvas has been one way we do that, unlocking collaboration and productivity beyond the constraints of just a digital whiteboard.

MURAL has always championed the tenets of collaboration and bridging the gap between people, their ideas, and each other. The digital whiteboard tool was one of the first to show you your teammates’ cursors on the screen as they flung sticky notes around with wild abandon, added drawings and pasted screenshots. It was an entirely new dimension of collaboration on the 2-dimensional canvas plane.

But, as technology evolves, so must any organization looking to expand how, when, and where they can serve their customers — and potential future customers. The advent of immersive presence technology (XR = AR, VR, MR) that is affordable and convenient has opened up a new space where collaboration and creativity can take place. A new layer that adds a 3rd dimension… that’s right folks, we’re heading into the MURALverse with this one.

Let us tell you a story about MURAL, Virtual Reality, and a cozy little ranch nestled among the craters of a far-away asteroid.

Dipping a toe into the rapids

In January of 2022, we cobbled together a virtual worldbuilding event in conjunction with the Voltage Control agency’s “Control the Room” facilitation conference in Austin, Texas. The idea was simple: could we take these on-premise groups of facilitators looking to learn new methods and techniques of how to facilitate team dynamics through virtual reality, and show them how to plan, build, and conduct activities in VR?

The options for where this could take place were limited to the only readily available, standalone VR headset: the Meta Quest and the recently released beta of Horizon Worlds, the collaborative worldbuilding VR app also by Meta.

A theme of “four seasons” was put together with some basic guidelines to create reflective, mindful activities that would allow for team communication and participation in VR. The focus wasn’t on the technology, but on how people would react to this application of the technology.

Scenes from Summer
Scenes from Autumn

It was a river-rapid experience of figuring out nearly every step of the process, from notifying attendees, to getting them into hardware, to teaching them the basics of using the device and software. In the end, we finished building activities in the Summer and Autumn themed worlds, but for everyone involved, the experience was so novel and unfamiliar we were thrilled to see it work even if it was rough and messy.

🔗 Watch the roundup video of this first event on Linkedin! 📹

This prototype of an event allowed us to succeed at the most important step of any adventure, the first step. But, a first step is only good if it is followed by another, and another…

And it was with that notion, we decided to think big and set our sights on an event of cosmic proportions, which happened to coincide with an evolution of MURAL the company itself.

The Problem of Presence; and an solution

MURAL announced in March a new category we intended to develop and proliferate known as Collaborative Intelligence, defined as: “Collaborative intelligence is a new systematic approach that connects teams to unlock their genius — taking insights and ideas from possibility to reality.”

Read more about Collaborative Intelligence here: https://www.mural.co/collaborative-intelligence

Taking insights and ideas from possibility to reality… or virtual reality! This second iteration of our VR event was the perfect place to explore this new frontier of virtual presence, connection, and collaboration. With that in mind, the name and theme of our June event was born:

Collaborative Frontiers!

The theme of Collaborative Frontiers was introductions, communication techniques, making new bonds, and reflection. And of course, embracing the “future of work” through the metaphor of space exploration, sci-fi and futurism. This was the milieu, the feeling, the tone. The ask of the participants’ activity was a bit different. We had to continually remind ourselves that we weren’t here to explore how VR tools work; that was a side effect. We were here to find the baseline of how people would collaborate and interact across several different platforms, time zones, schedules, and mindsets, with VR being the central hub and focal point of activity.

Spatial audio, visual cues, and environment make for natural, organic clustering.

The challenge for the experience was stated as: “Use the 2 build weeks to plan and design a VR activity for groups of 5–8 people to spend up to 1 hour experiencing, coordinating with each other asynchronously to meet in VR, Discord, and your team Mural canvas to plan and build.”

MURAL would provide starting world as a template, just a purple, crater-strewn moon where we would meet with the attendees for check-ins and the various keynotes, and the attendees would sort themselves into teams that coincided with Red and Blue (and Green, though that team remained empty in the reserves).

We wanted to have as much of the interaction be “spatial” as we could, meaning that people were not just assigned to teams, they walked themselves to the Red or Blue platform in VR, and there were no breakout rooms for this, we used the natural sound falloff distance to allow groups to speak. You don’t need artificial breakout rooms when groups can simply move further apart until they can’t hear each other.

The shuttle we built to take you to the surface, and the team platforms for self organization.

Active Learning in the Collaboration Enrichment Center

Before we jump into the main activity of the event, we need to take a little detour.

One of the most salient learnings from the first Horizon Worlds event from January was the difficulty curve of getting people who were new to VR, new to 3D modeling, and new to the Horizon Worlds platform (as it has just come out of beta!) up to a baseline effectiveness in building.

The target audience for our VR activities are similar to MURAL’s core audience; facilitators, team leaders, knowledge workers who work in technology or consulting, and those interested in collaboration. While some may have experience in some or all of the facets listed above, few felt comfortable combining all three at once, and there was an additional plot-twist to our effort.

Some of the excited attendees showed up to the VR space after having purchased a Quest at their local big-box store that very day, having never owned any VR devices. One attendee said the Quest was the first gaming console they had owned since an Atari!

Most of the tools and training were designed for people interested in the object creation and gamification elements of VR and Horizon Worlds. Our attendees weren’t part of the normal VR modeling and gaming audience, they were there to explore facilitation skills and Collaboration Design. We knew from the event six-months previous that this was a major barrier… but one we thought we could remove.

The solution? We built what became MURAL’s “Collaboration Enrichment Center” (casually referred to now as the CEC) from scratch, breaking down the core abilities for modeling in Horizon Worlds into discrete, learnable segments, wrapped in a facilitated, collaborative experience that utilized our tenets of Collaboration Design and facilitation as an active-learning experience.

Planning what a great training center would need.

We re-built the major components of the Horizon Worlds UI and visual elements inside of Horizon Worlds itself. Now we had a common frame of reference and visuals that mapped to the experience of the learner that the teacher could refer to. We took each of those visual elements and built the stages around them, and ended up with a seven stage process that consistently took the learners from zero-to-building in under an hour.

The Collaboration Enrichment Center

The first week of the two-week had bookable slots for our near-60 signups to schedule time with our training facilitators. Slots began to fill, and over the course of a week, 20-something participants showed up, participated, learned, and in the end, walked away with the baseline skills to be able to convert their collaborative ideas from the 2D MURAL canvas to the 3D Horizon World!

Learning the tools and techniques one skill at a time in the CEC.

The best part: this wasn’t just teaching the fundamentals of Horizon Worlds and VR worldbuilding. It was an active learning experience and demonstration of Collaboration Design, an experiential prototype of working collaboratively, synchronously and asynchronously, from 2D to 3D.

It was a welcome surprise and breath of relief. The feedback from our CEC participants was glowing, not just because they learned the fundamentals of building, but because for almost all of them, it was their first collaborative, professional, and enjoyable experience of the Metaverse.

That’s what we wanted to do, build the bridge in people’s minds from the old ways of collaborating to new ways. VR happened to be the vehicle, but this immersive co-presence and collaboration was the destination.

The Main Event Kickoff

While the training sessions in the CEC were being booked, we were running the program in parallel. In the week leading up to the main event, we sent out video messages with teaser content, entertaining instructional material, and onboarding tips for having a good experience in virtual reality.

One of these videos came from our friends at Mighty Coconut, makers of VR bestseller “Walkabout Mini Golf”, in the form of Don Carson as one of our inspiration partners and presenters. Don is one of the Sr. Creative Directors at Mighty Coconut and for many years worked for Disney theme parks as a park Imagineer, designing the rides and experience in the real-world. Don refers to what he loves as “placemaking” and is applying his skills to virtual reality for the Walkabout Mini Golf courses (which you should really go try, they are incredible).

Our 2D pre-event interview with Don Carson

The spirit of this event was about connection, collaboration, and “placemaking” environments that enhance those goals , with the tools of VR building as a secondary learning experience. Don helped set our sights on the possibilities of what environmental storytelling can do (he’s built a whole museum for it you can go try).

Don’s Museum of Environmental Storytelling

Don’s message to the attendees on the opening day was to think about how environments can tell a story, how place and setting can create a narrative where the sum of the individual elements that make up a place can be much more than the individual parts. This is a critical learning for the future of immersive presence technologies like VR and AR. The technology gets us halfway there, but without thinking through how the virtual — or augmented experiences — create a narrative breadcrumb trail, they will never be more than an extra layer of tech noise. But, when executed with an environment and story-first design mindset, the promise of immersive technology goes from being a gimmick, to being an entirely new platform for collaboration and connection.

Self-organization, teams, and tools

Coordinating strangers across time zones, schedules, ability levels, and even languages was going to be tough. Or… it would have been, were we not already experts in remote collaboration. MURAL is a remote company and strives to be a vanguard in the Future of Work. We wanted this event to be a reflection of ethos.

All attendees were invited to a Discord which afforded us the team chat and video capabilities, and team Murals were created to act as the virtual home-base outside of VR. Asynchronous team communication was the backbone of the event, and MURAL was where that took place. In a future of work where people live apart, work is what is accomplished together. For us, that meant coordinating in MURAL and building in Horizon Worlds.

Red Team’s collaboration board!
Blue Team’s collaboration board!

Taking what we learned from our work with Don and the principles of environmental design, we built a central hub world which we named the MURAL Moonbase as a way to guide the incoming participants to a central location without any instruction or prompting. The environment should “show, not tell” people what to do, meaning the decisions of how to place objects was how we facilitated the event without resorting to explicit instructions.

When it came time to form the teams, we encouraged the attendees to look at the space and self organized into the platforms that were color-coded and arranged in a pattern around the center. The environment told the story, and attendees were able to divide up, balance their skill, and self-organize because of what the space around them implied, without us needing to step it. It encouraged action and movement but kept the locus of control with the individual, not the facilitator.

And remember: this isn’t a real place, each person was sitting at home in their VR headsets. And yet… ask anyone who attended what they remember. Do they recall the room they were in and the headset a mere centimeter from their eyes, or do they recall where they were standing on the moon, who was to their left and right, what Don talked about when he gave his informal keynote or what he talked about during our Asteroid Ranch fireside.

This was the purpose of the event and the crux of MURAL’s perspective of immersive technology. It’s not about the tech or the tools, it’s about the places we can create and experience together. The environment may have been virtual, but the memory of the experience is real, and that’s not just a metaphor, that’s the science of how memory and neurology works. In the memory and experience of an attendee, it wasn’t them sitting in their home office or bedroom with a gadget pressed against their eyeballs, it was a trip to a fantastical old ranch on a crater-strewn asteroid where they sat on neon-pink hay bales and listened to a fireside deep-dive into the principles of environmental design with Don Carson, former Imagineer for Disney theme parks and current Sr. Art Director for Walkabout Mini Golf.

Placemaking and a Fireside Asteroid

As the overall goal of this event was about the experience and finding where our current limitations of transporting people’s sense of presence were, rather than it was about technical tools. With that in mind, at the halfway point of the event’s two-week schedule, we arranged to have Don sit down with us and do an unstructured fireside for the event.

Now, there’s nothing novel or new about having a guest speaker come and motivate and inspire, be it at a conference keynote or a private talk in a corporate meeting hall. And in the present, the likelihood that this sort of engagement would have taken place over video conferencing tools is almost certain; an audience of little tiny box faces starting at a slightly larger box face of someone talking. There’s no presence, there’s no immersion, and the brain — and mind — are unable to separate the moment from their computer screen, their home office, their sense of disconnection.

😞

We couldn’t abide that.

Instead, the weekend before the scheduled fireside, the MURAL worldbuilders created a new location in our virtual ecosystem: the Fireside Asteroid. Using the purple, cratered-moon from the event, we decided that a fantastical Space Ranch would be a great place for a chat.

We built the ranch house, the barn, the stage, the crystalline fire-pit with floating particles. We lined up hay bales, created a basketball court for pre/post talk socialization, a diving pool, and we even built a rocketship that takes you to the asteroid so that your mind accepts the transition from place A to place B, and forgets about the home office, the gadget on your face, or that these avatars you’re hanging out with are avatars.

People arrived, gathered around, arranged (or tossed) the hay bales. They shot a few shots at the hoop while we convened, and then settled in to hear Don talk from his plush, floating easy-chair as the crystal-fire crackled.

Watch the entire 50 minute chat here, your chance to hear from a former Disney theme park Imagineer for free!! ⬇️

Why would we do it this way? Isn’t a video call just the same?

Well… No. We don’t think so.

The human mind has evolved as the most powerful organic computer known to exist, and it relies on the sensory input of sight, sound, and most importantly, relationship to other people and objects in one’s space. The Fireside Asteroid setting, the nearness of other avatars, Don’s voice spatially located on the stage; none of these aspects were just “nice to haves” or window dressing. It was the core of the experience, something that video calls on computer screens cannot — and will not — replicate.

The Fireside Asteroid Ranch

Virtual worlds, real experiences, intelligent collaboration

With hearts full of inspiration and minds full of ideas, our attendees returned to their build worlds to continue their collaboration, using Horizon Worlds, MURAL, and Discord to continue their experiments and explorations as the demo-day approached!

On the Red Team, a spaceship puzzle solving narrative game was being created, utilizing the theme of sci-fi novel series “The Dauntless Gambit” in the form of the story’s main setting, a run-down space barge named Matilda. The Red Team iterated and built in shifts, collaborating asynchronously in the MURAL and Discord, then meeting in VR to create their build. The environment of polygons and sound effects was one part, and the reinforcement of the setting and narrative of the facilitator’s script was the other.

On demo day, the participants were transported to the ship’s main command center and given a series of collaborative tasks as the facilitator play-acted the role of the ship’s captain, guiding them through a series of collaboration exercises and puzzles. As a prototype of an entire collaborative process and workflow, the purpose of the demo-day wasn’t to have a perfect product or air-tight experience (even if the ship itself has functioning airlocks).

Watch a segment of the Red Team world in action! 🎬 ⬇️

Watch the Red Team’s Spaceship Adventure play out!

As we made our way through the stages and puzzles, everyone present was able to take note of just how present they were, crowded against the metal bulkheads and conduits of the ship, focused on the sense of space and connection with the group, their focus and attention light-years away from their actual, physical surroundings.

At the same time, the Blue Team had been working on their project; a maze-like series of escape rooms that took a lone attendee from an isolated chamber and let them figure out how to proceed to the next room where they would join up with their neighbor, moving from rooms that took one person to solve, to two people, to four, and finally eight. And like the Red Team, the Blue Team was able to plan, iterate, and collaborate on this creation in MURAL and Discord, then build together in shifts in Horizon Worlds.

On demo day, the participants were transported to the fifteen-room complex on the MURAL moon, working together to escape the facility before the planet overhead crashed down to the surface. In a narrative turn of events, the Blue Team had run out of time to finish the 2nd half of the mirror-image moon facility. But, as the purpose of the event was collaboration and narrative immersion design, a last-minute pivot was made: we crashed the planet into the facility, started a huge smokey fire, and let that “ticking clock” act as a narrative driver for the half of the event that had been finished.

Watch a segment of the Blue Team world in action! 🎬 ⬇️

Blue Team created a collaborative escape-room compound!
The planet crashed into the compound!

And in the end, that was a much more narratively interesting choice to start the Blue Team’s narrative in medias res! The lived-in state of the level created a narrative tension that helped support the premise of the escape room activity.

What we learned, what went well, what didn’t

Overall, the event succeeded in what it set out to do… being that we had very little precedent by which to compare it! The idea was audacious with plentiful points of possible failure, but in the end, we as MURAL’s XR team believe that the learnings and experiences are something that could not have been done without just diving into this new frontier of collaborative storytelling and connection in virtual reality.

Through the event, the medium, and the message, we were able to test the waters of using VR not as a technical playground, but as a collaborative one. Most of the attendees were not VR technical enthusiasts, modelers, or coders. It was quite the opposite; we had pro facilitators, consultants, program managers, and team leaders. They saw the chance to broaden their horizons and have an active-learning experience first hand, setting aside their biases and preconceptions about VR and collaboration and simply being present in the virtual world, in the Mural canvas, in the Discord chat.

However the future of remote virtual presence and immersion plays out as the different developers of hardware and software trailblaze their way forward, it is an inevitability that these technologies will be available to put to good, moral, ethical use, bridging gaps across distance and presence. At MURAL, we choose to see this new general computing platform as a bridge to enhanced connection, collaboration, and creativity, which in turn allows for greater personal freedom of location, of schedule, of expression.

This is what the power of environment and presence technology offers us, and VR headsets are just a low-cost, easy to access way to tap into that. That is the core tenet behind MURAL’s foray into immersive technology. It’s not that we have these VR headset and are in search of a problem to solve, it’s the opposite. The inability for standard desktop technology to give us the benefit of environment, presence, and connection is a known, unsolved problem in the future of work and hybrid or remote organizations.

The upside to this problem we all will face is that now, we have the ability to short-circuit those problems with this presence technology, with meaningfully designed environments, and with narrative-driven, choreographed experiences that allow people to “be present” from hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

For us, VR is not a “solution looking for a problem.” The problems of disconnectedness, distance, and disillusionment around the “future of work” is something we all face… and we think we’ve found a high-potential answer that just happens to be VR, AR, XR.

It’s not all a Snow Crash dystopia out there in the meta-realities that VR heralds. If you’re feeling down about VR, lonely in your headset, or just want to be creative rather than consume the creations of others on these platforms, reach out. MURAL XR would love to hear from other people who believe in the new, collaborative frontiers these technologies will bring, and for every criticism and warning about VR and this burgeoning new application of technology, we hope to provide a different, optimistic, and ambitious alternative.

Be the change you want to see in the Metaverse.

Sincerely, MURAL XR team.

Special Thanks

This event would not have been possible without the generous help from our VR worldbuilding partners:

  • Our friends at Meta—James and Ben—who helped support and coordinate the event and facilitate between the two companies.
  • Matthieu Sabourin — Helped coordinate the event, manage the calendars, schedule the program. Thank you Matthieu!
  • Paul Tomlinson — Helped design the worlds, program the shuttle, teach a scripting class to the attendees, and just overall make things look and feel so much better!
  • Don Carson — For inspiring us, offering his advice and wisdom, and helping us reach for new heights in environmental storytelling!
  • Wafflecopters — For giving us advice and inspiration about scripting, gamification, and Horizon Worlds
  • All the other MURALISTAS at MURAL who helped test, plan, and coordinate the event, thank you again!
What is real? Is real just the collaboration and connection we make together?

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