The idea of using VR as a teaching platform arose out of a recognition that these tools are very powerful but few people know how best to use them. Working with these tools for several years has shown that the metaverse has more to offer than just a classroom replacement in Corona times. TekLab is exploring this potential and initiated an international collaboration.
From left to right: Professor Andy Opel and associate professor Malia Bruker from the Florida State University (FSU), UiB professor Lars Nyre and masterstudent at FSU Drew Kocur. Andy Opel and Lars Nyre organised the program of the conference "Reclaiming the metaverse".
"We can put a power point on the wall in the building in VR, but what else can we do? We want to break with the traditional thinking and start a systemic exploration on a global scale", said media professor Andy Opel from the Florida State University (FSU) during his presentation at the conference "Reclaiming the metaverse".
He was one of more than 25 researchers discussing the role of the metaverse in higher education at a seminar that took place April 13th and 14th in Media City Bergen.
Together with Volda University College, Stavanger University, Bergen University, Tampere University and the Florida State University TekLabs leader Lars Nyre wants to apply for funding for this project from the Norwegian Centre for Excellence in Education at the next deadline in late 2025.
An open playground
“We need to make people understand that VR is more than just a video game. A new association is required, and academia is responsible for answering the necessary questions to help develop the use of the metaverse", stated the master student at FSU, Drew Kocur, during his first visit in Bergen.
He, associate professor Malia Bruker and Andy Opel see the potential of the metaverse for more than just learning students how to create VR. What it needs is more experimenting in educational settings.
Now, he still uses VR as a place to educate students about and within the metaverse.
VR cannot be used for all kind of teaching as Malia Bruker experienced: "I cannot teach editing or anything where you need to use your hands. That does not work, yet. Maybe later in the future it is for example possible to make music there."
"VR was and is just as ChatGPT now still an open playground where both academics and industry player try to figure out how to use it. But we in academia have a unique perspective and need to be actively exploring the potential of these tools to help us address our many social problems, from the climate crisis to economic inequality across the globe," explained Opel.
Also associated professor Malia Bruker sees the potential of academic research on the topic:
"Not many content creators in the industry think about the theory behind it. That’s the value of exploring new media technology in academia. We must answer the questions about open access to platforms, and we must find solutions instead of the technology industry doing it", stated Bruker.
Such questions as of accessability, equality, price, use and protection are significant barriers. Kocur also mentions the omnipresent danger of tracking services and stresses the technical glitches in some software.
"There is not one metaverse, but there are many with different specificiations and possibilties. Policies protecting the user can be set by certain entities such as the EU privacy standards, but there is a tension between law enforcement, privacy and technology," said Kocur.
From 3D to VR
Andy Opels fascination with VR started in 2009 when the 3D-film "Avatar" was published. He followed the evolution of the first duel lens, single body 3D camera to 4k and google cardboard to VR headsets closely.
Drew Kocur has 25 years of experience with IT. Now he is helping students trouble shooting while working with VR.
"Tools move so quickly that I can't be ahead of my students. We have to work together to learn these tools and that’s why I do innovation pedagogy", explained Opel and continued:
"By giving each student their own VR headset, they get to deal intensively with the software and hardware at home. You cannot make a movie if you have only seen one movie. So students need exposure to a wide range of VR experiences in order to start conceptualizing their own projects," he said.
Opel meets his students weekly in the metaverse to show and learn what they can do in VR.
"I noticed that students pay more attention when they have the headset on. They can't check their phones. It is really obvious when an avatar suddenly looks up. Then I know that the student is away from the gear", Opel said with a smile.
Cosplay and Wii Mii
Opel uses engagevr.io to teach VR. There students build their own avatars which they use to communicate with each other in the metaverse.
This is how it looked when Andy Opel met his students in virtual burning man VR.
Teacher, researcher and media producer Malia Bruker recently gave a guest lecture in such a virtual environment in the US and was surprised by the expressiveness that some students gave their avatars.
"I saw how they shape their own new personas in the metaverse. The avatar I made myself did not look like me at all, but I spend only 30 minutes on it. Some avatars seemed genderfluid and that was interesting. It is kind of empowering to change your outlook in VR, explained Bruker.
Master student Kocur stresses that the default avatar is a panda bear in Mozilla Hubs, another online VR platform, but he also experienced students creating a fire fighter version of themselves when he was a student in Opel’s class.
As creative as the avatars can be, also space is up to ones creativity in VR. Professor Opel poses the question whether the meeting place has to be a conference room or if it also can be a carousel, a luxury yacht or the Oval Office in the White House.
"If we look at the virtual burning man experience, we see a wide range of potential of the metaverse. This was an open participatory community space that addressed many different topics, with examples ranging from interactive music venues that replicated a real world environment to enormous sculptures in outer space where the audience could fly around the view the sculptures from any degree imaginable. This captured a lot of my imagination", he said.
Defining space with 360
Also 360 videos are part of the metaverse as Malia Bruker proves. She made a 360 dance film about stories of woman fleeing sexual violence and defined space in a new way.
"The 360 camera films everything, but we wanted to show both closed and wide open spaces. So we were using exploration of shifting environment and choreography to approach the topic", she said.
She was asked to make a film on the topic by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at FSU in May 2020 during the height of the pandemic. One reason she chose to shoot in 360 degrees was to avoid an unsafe traditional film set with crew members for lighting, sound, and more. These crew positions are less needed in 360 filmmaking because lights, and everything in the environment, are visible, so she was able to work without lights or a crew
"That was challenging. So I ended up being the only crew member on set and was hiding behind objects", she exlained.
By using the right point of view, Bruker managed to create empathy and evoke strong feelings.
"I paired it with the concept of kinesthetic empathy and viewer positionality. When you watch bodies in motion, you get a sense of movement in your own body, which makes you feel more connected to the scene", Bruker said.
Even if the angle of 360 cameras evoke strong feeling in the viewer, Andy Opel sees one big difference to VR: "360 is not interactive."
These emerging tools are one part of major technological changes that are taking place across the globe. One area that is being actively explored is immersive media and how it can be taught and applied in the most effective way. These questions require input from universities and industry experts who can collaborate to share knowledge and ideas. Professor Lars Nyre and TekLab are creating new connections between students and faculties in Scandinavia and the U.S., with the goal of promoting sustainable and democratic development for our planet.
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