how I built a virtual reality for my students – and what I have learned along the way

We’ve heard a lot recently about the meta-verse – a vision for the Internet that uses technology like virtual and augmented reality to integrate real and digital worlds. With Facebook changing its name to Meta to focus on this area, and other major technology companies like Microsoft coming on board, there is a lot of discussion about the potential of the meta-verse to improve the way we socialize, work and learn.

A key component of the metaverse ecosystem will be the creative economy. The virtual worlds of the meta-verse must be conceived, designed and built by individuals and organizations.

To that end, I established a module at the University of Nottingham in 2020, where up to 100 of my engineering students interact with each other in avatar form in a virtual world known as Nottopia. Nottopia began as an amazing virtual island, and has since become a floating castle in the sky.

I have approached this as something of a research project where I examine students about their experiences and observe their behavior in the virtual world. My observations have informed about changes I have made in Nottopia along the way.

They have also provided my answers to three key questions that I think are relevant to anyone considering their own virtual world – whether it’s for education or one of the metaverse’s countless other applications.

Professor Burnett and a number of his students represented as avatars in Nottopia.
In Nottopia, I am able to teach my students about virtual reality in a virtual world.
Author indicated

Which platform should you use?

To build a virtual world that others can join, you need a social virtual reality (VR) platform. I used Mozilla Hubs, but there are several others. These platforms can be broadly categorized according to availability and customization options.

Accessibility issues include whether the platform can run on everyday computers, including mobile devices, or whether it requires dedicated hardware, such as VR headsets. From my perspective, it was important that the virtual world was available on standard technology, but also that students could benefit from the immersive experiences that VR headsets provide (students can use VR headsets from the university if they wish).

Read more: It turns out that the answer to virtual reality disease is right in front of your face

Customization is how easy it is to edit virtual worlds on the platform (usually they have a set of “template” worlds), or to create your own from scratch. Last year I edited an existing world, while this year I took several already existing building blocks (for example, pieces of a castle) to recreate Nottopia.

The ability to adapt to this world has been crucial to me. I needed to develop a world where we could easily gather for whole group discussions and presentations as well as smaller group discussions. It should also be a space that students could contribute to (for example, by adding post-it notes, photos, videos, and 3D objects).

The virtual world Nottopia.
Students can enter 3D spheres representing the university’s three campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia.
Author indicated

What should the virtual world look like?

Another basic decision is about whether the virtual world should be based on a space in the real world (maybe even aim to copy one as a digital twin) or whether it should be targeted differently. When I devised my VR module in the spring / summer of 2020, this was an interesting dilemma. When we were at the height of the lockdown, I was tempted to recreate specific campus buildings so the students had the feeling of being in college.

But based on a combination of education theory and student feedback, I eventually created a world that was obviously amazing. The goal was to motivate students through gamification – to make their experience in the virtual world playful and challenging, a bit like a game – and also provide an escape from the stress of the pandemic. Hence the decision to launch Nottopia as a futuristic building on a Mediterranean-style island. The reason I subsequently redesigned Nottopia as a castle on an island in the sky was to draw on Nottingham’s reputation as a medieval town and in response to students’ desire for a more expansive campus environment.

Picture of the teaching island Nottopia 2020
Nottopia in 2020 was a futuristic building on a Mediterranean-style island. The 2021 version, a castle on an island in the sky, is shown at the top of this article.
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In Nottopia, I occasionally give lectures, but typically use the virtual space in more creative ways. For example, I often meet students in the castle courtyard to discuss the topic of the week before asking them to follow a tax trail around Nottopia’s buildings where they have to solve engineering problems at each stage.

How complex should the world be?

Current social VR technology presents limitations on how detailed an environment can be before it causes performance issues. This is especially true for software such as Mozilla Hubs, which runs on the browser (as opposed to an application you have to download and install) and which is available on mobile devices.

In general, the factors that have the greatest impact on performance include the number of polygons (the basic shapes that make up a 3D object), texture sizes (the number of pixels for 2D images placed over 3D objects), and the total file size of the world . This was challenging to balance. The more complex your world is, the more you end up with low frame rates (a nervous world). A complex world can also be limited in the number of users that can join the space.

Read more: Virtual reality has been boosted by coronavirus – how to avoid it leading us to dystopia

You can assume that creating a virtual world requires significant technical skills, including the ability to write code. But my experience has shown me that this is not the case.

The evolution of each of these worlds took me about a week. I enjoyed the fact that social VR platforms like Mozilla Hubs are increasingly user-friendly and require little or no technical know-how. And there are many online video tutorials available.

Ultimately, the process by which these virtual worlds are created should be human-centered – designed according to the capabilities, goals and expectations of the intended users. All too often, we hear about or experience products that ultimately failed because the designers were too focused on the technological possibilities, rather than the users. The meta-verse will not be any different.

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