The Best Platform for Virtual Reality Classrooms

Steven King
Apr 3, 2020 · 6 min read
Screen capture of Microsoft’s AltspaceVR and Mozilla’s Hubs

This is the second article of a three-part series on Virtual Reality Education.

VR Classroom Series: Part 1: Space Matters | Part 2: The Best Platform for VR | Part 3: How to Build a Classroom in Altspace VR | Part 4: Teaching and Presenting in a VR Class

Choosing the right technology platform for any educational experience is essential. Especially in VR. There are several solutions out there, but all are pretty young compared to other educational software, and most of the platforms I found were not built for educational purposes.

First, you need to know and understand the needs of the audience. Second, you need to understand your own time and technical capabilities, and third, you need to find a solution that will work consistently and be a great user experience for the students and professor.

Class Needs:

  • Groups Size: 28 Students, one professor
  • Demographics: All have access to high-speed internet,
  • No declared physical handicaps (Comparison Article about the accessibility of both platforms)
  • Most are self-selected as technology enthusiasts due to the title of the class, and it is not required for most majors.
  • All with previous experience in VR from earlier in the semester

Hardware:

  • Students: School provided 28 Oculus Go headsets,
  • Professor: Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, Mac and PC
  • Class Type: This is a hybrid conceptual and skills-based class use human-centered-design concepts to teach emerging technologies such as VR, AR, and AI through group discussion. Each technology module includes hands-on creation using industry tools such as Unity, Unreal Engine, and Python.

I evaluated 12 different platforms, but I eliminated most of them because of the limit to the number of people in a single space.

The two most promising platforms were Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR. I dug deep into both of them to create the ideal virtual collaborative and educational environment.

Mozilla Hubs

UNC Reese Innovation Lab Emerging Tech class Mozilla Hubs

Mozilla Hubs was my first choice for this class, but it was not my last choice. It is open-source, delivered through the browser making the course available on the Headset as well as Mac and PC just by launching Chrome or Firefox. Browser-based is an ideal feature if students have technical problems with the headset.

One of the best things about Hubs is Spoke, the accompanying open-source 3D developer tool that publishes seamlessly into Hubs. I love the ability to create custom spaces and to design unique experiences using web-based software, and there are thousands of open-source assets available from SketchFab.

Screenshot of Mozilla Spoke Authoring Tool

The most significant limitation for Hubs is the number of people. In my testing, before the class, I found that with 10–12 people in the room, it became laggy, especially on the Oculus Go. So, for the first week of remote learning, I broke the students into three groups of 8–10, and I taught the class three times. Despite the extra effort, it was worth it for the first week. I was able to work with a few students at a time that had technical troubles, and all of the students could experience the 3D VR world with direct contact with the professor. I scheduled the meetings to start on the hour with a 15-minute buffer. It took between 5–15 minutes to get everyone in the room and working correctly, and we then had about 30 minutes of lecture/discussion and small groups before it was time for the next group.

I also love how easy it is for anyone, professor or student, to share their screen in Hubs. I used this feature well and made my slides the size of a 20 foot-high movie screen.

Screen Sharing in Mozilla Hubs

Altspace VR

Screenshot of AltspaceVR

For the second week, I had all of the students sign-up for AltSpace VR, and they went through the main tutorial and into the Social Fair. The Social Fair is a tutorial in Altspace on how to interact in the AltSpace world. Their assignment included sending me a friend request in AltSpace, and I added them to a group so I could invite them to the class event.

AltspaceVR is a much more robust platform that has rooms that can handle 60 people. The platform has been around a while, and there are a lot of power-users engaged in the Altspace world. Users can attend all kinds of events, including and Educators in VR Conference I attended, and the avatars are more customizable and better looking than the ones on Hubs. Altspace was built around the idea of a public gathering space, and hosting a semi-private event that was discoverable by my “friends” was much more difficult than I expected. It took a lot of searching and digging through the docs and asking questions in the fantastic Discord forum, but in a week, I created a World, Group, and Event to host my class, and the class was a big success.

Steven King helps students get connected to his Emerging Technology Class in Altspace VR.

The students responded well to the new environment. They interacted with each other, and I had to try multiple times to bring everyone to order when I was ready to start class, something right in the real world as in the virtual world. Everyone liked the Altspace classroom experience better than Hubs, and we are going to continue to have class in Altspace, but I will be changing the room a little based on their feedback.

Steven King teaches his 588 Class in AltspaceVR.

There was one complaint I heard multiple times from the students, especially the women. When they were in public social spaces, they only met “kids” or “young teenagers.” One said, “There was this 13-year-old kid that kept following me around and sending me multiple friend requests and would not leave me alone.” I also must admit it felt awkward to be a 39-year-old man talking to young teenage strangers on the internet, so I quickly left the Social Fair. There are other places in the Altspace world to interact with people of different demographics and interests. We are using this platform for class, so students don’t have to communicate in the public spaces other than that first assignment.

Conclusions

Having hosted two class meetings and spent hours over the last two weeks in Mozilla Hubs, VR Chat, AltSpace, and a hand full of others, I have to say I like AltspaceVR for the teaching and classroom experience. Students used the space and interacted well, and I received a unanimous vote with streams of emoji hearts and smiley faces to host the class in AltSpace next week.

Update: Here is a great article about accessibility and screenreaders for these two platforms.

Next:
The next post will be a how-to article and video on setting up Altspace for classroom experience and, hopefully, save some innovative teachers a lot of time!

UNC professor Steven King teaches Emerging Technologies class in VR wearing an Oculus Quest and external boom microphone.

VR Classroom Series: Part 1: Space Matters | Part 2: The Best Platform for VR | Part 3: How to Build a Classroom in Altspace VR | Part 4: Teaching and Presenting in a VR Class

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Finding new ways to engage audiences with emerging technologies and strong storytelling.

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