|Supervisor:||Prof. Gudrun Klinker|
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Communication and Interaction Methods for Virtual Courses - DemoDay Page
During the Covid-19 pandemic, education has been taking place mainly online by facilitating video conferencing tools and learning management systems. Often, courses were merely transposed from the offline setting into the online world, without notion of the vastly different requirements that online education poses. The results have been fatiquing for learners and especially social interaction between students was inhibited. This thesis presents an exploratory approach towards online education by leveraging the effects of a proximity based interaction system for virtual learning environments. The aim is providing a social space that encourages frequent interaction by design. The core question revolves around how the features of a virtual world can enable stronger sense of community through fostering regular and rich interactions. In addition, the contribution of proximity to shaping the space for engaging, but safe conversations is to be assessed. Based on theoretical foundations of virtual worlds, an online multiplayer prototype was developed with Unity3D. By applying a game design oriented approach, an immersive virtual campus was built, which defines the interaction space in which students can converse through live text and voice chat. This environment steers players’ positioning through purposeful virtual facilities and regulations on communication channels. Meaningful collaborations are performed through embodiment in customizable characters, which allow players to develop a sense of identity. Proximity indicators around every player act as a measure of distance and inherently support contact with other users. In contrast, the proximity system also affords awareness of other users and their personal boundaries. These features contribute to creation of social presence and community.
In order to tackle the social issues of online teaching and experiences of educating in pandemic times, this thesis presents a VLE that includes a new approach on how users can connect within a virtual proximity. The application is based on the concept of virtual worlds and expands it with features of an imitated 3D university setting. First and foremost, it serves as a communication tool between teachers and students, presenters and audience, but also and especially between students and students. Its intentions are providing a common ground for every participant that is equally shared while respecting privacy, norms and netiquette. Moreover, it demonstrates possible future features that have the potential to change how users interact within social online environments. By taking inspiration from video game background, the application also offers ideas from a different perspective than common conferencing tools which are mainly used for education at the moment. In this regard, immersive features that originate from games have been included.
Due to the special focus on privacy and the intention to offer a better spatial distribution of players, the Virtual Campus App employs means to protect one’s proximity and private sphere. As in the introduction preliminarily explained, proximity defines a distance between users on which basis they are able to communicate. Proximity is actually a term stemming from physical circumstances as opposed to virtual ones. Kiesler and Cummings (2002, p. 58) define it as "the physical distance between people measure in units such as inches, meters, or miles". It is used as a term that helps describing the closeness and cohesiveness of work groups and can mean anything from hallways separating the group members, amount of different working sites or a distance of coworkers from the headquarter of a company. The virtual proximity on the other hand side might be more about how users perceive their closeness in a spatially distributed work environment, say Kiesler and Cummings. Generally, close proximity has been found to have positive impact on relationships and group interaction (Kiesler& Cummings, 2002). These parallels do remind of the sense of social presence within VLE. The new approach that can be found in current technologies is transposing are presentation of proximity into the virtual world. In comparison to a simply perceived closeness, it visualizes or renders audible the distance to others. Its affordances are manifold.
This thesis presented a standalone 3D VLE developed with Unity3D which offers a space to interact and communicate with players online. It addresses the central issue of users experiencing a lack of social contact in other communication applications throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. First and foremost, it can be used as a tool for virtual courses in schools or universities and enable a better course experience for participants by leveraging spatial concepts. The application combines advantages of both 2D organizational views and 3D immersive game visuals. As foundation, the Virtual Campus App makes use of the features of virtual worlds and considers the main ideas of VLEs. It became aware, that the most crucial affordance of VLEs is the facilitation of a collaborative environment and, thus, the formation of community. Key to online education is the interactions between students that are possible within the environment. Furthermore, it is the environment’s representational fidelity that enables immersion for all users. This is enhanced through embodiment in a user’s virtual world’s depiction, namely avatars. That way, users can create a sense of presence or being there. Through rich interactions with other players, this presence extends towards a sense of social presence, the notion of being in a world populated with real people. These factors enable experiences within the environment that lay the basis for further learning benefits. The virtual world takes a lot of inspiration from actual game design and implements them in space structure, visuals and aural experience. The environment imitates a campus with its arrival areas, gathering plazas and buildings. Several facilities that can also be found in reality are depicted and serve as focal points for users. Depending on their intentions, students will visit different rooms or places and meet other players who share the same goal. This crowd control feature is enhanced by the restriction of communication channels available, which differs throughout the rooms. Additionally, the campus map makes use of push-pull principles by alternating open and closed spaces. Thus, players are naturally drawn towards open spaces in which they can gather for conversations. Dead-ends increase intersecting paths of players which allow them to get in contact especially in hallways and narrow places. These interaction enhancing features are completed by 3D spatial audio effects that provide position and orientation cues about the environment and other players. Finally, the environment uses an appropriate art style, that is not heavy on performance, yet still allows polished visuals that affect representational fidelity of the VLE. The core feature of the Virtual Campus App involves proximity as a measure of distance and sorting mechanism in space. It subdivides the environment for each player in smaller subspaces that become inherent communication bubbles. They make the interaction of users possible and support text chat, voice chat and the exchange of emotions via emojis. Therefore, they govern how people position and orient themself within the environment and how groups are formed. The proximity is visually indicated by a circle that evokes awareness in users about the personal space of other members. Aurally, the proximity also contributes to the sense of distance to a player as voice chat volume increases the closer players get. However, the proximity system also enforces a measure against stepping too close by fading users’ avatars and delivers, on top of avatars, means for protection of privacy. Lastly, the Virtual Campus App employs avatars as visual epresentations for users. The avatar editor entails a human model that can be outfitted to look like various animals or persons. Customization options for dress, skin color, profession, hair and accessories offer a broad selection for self-expression. Users have the freedom to design their characters depending on their current mood, their own looks or an idealized image they have. It is important to note, that the range of design options addresses every possible player, no matter their looks or personality. The aim of avatars is achieving the construction of identity of users by enabling embodiment within their character. Taking over control of their own avatars, in which they feel well represented, encourages immersion of the world. This is supported by suitable animations for the avatar and interactions that take place with other players in form of heir avatars. All in all the Virtual Campus App is a platform promoting the construction of community through social engagement in an online educational setting. This thesis connects the ideas of recent virtual world applications with more conventional VLEs in a game-like manner. It also describes how virtual world design can impact the distribution of users. This should not be neglected, when developing a 3D VLE, and is utterly essential for social discourse to emerge. As a prototype of its kind it indicates the high potential of spatial proximity concepts for user immersion, sense of community and online safety.