Virtual reality, metaverse platforms, and the future of higher education
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Virtual reality, metaverse platforms, and the future of higher education

By Nicole K. Stewart

“Metaverse” is an excellent word to describe the year 2022. Over the past few months, Disney hired a metaverse executive, J.P. Morgan opened a virtual lounge in Decentraland, Epic Games and Lego partnered to construct a kid-friendly metaverse, and ten post-secondary institutions across the United States are launching metaversities come fall. This article features conceptualizations around the metaverse and two Canadian higher education case studies that recently deployed metaverse platforms. In particular, I will feature a course I taught inside virtual reality (VR) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and discuss the first moot in the metaverse hosted by the University of Ottawa. I will conclude with commentary about future possibilities and challenges of implementing VR in higher education.

The concept of “the metaverse” circulated in technology, gaming, and cryptocurrency circles long before Facebook changed its company name to Meta in 2021, ushering in a new mission to “bring the metaverse to life”, and touting it as “the next evolution of social connection” (Meta, 2021a; 2021b). This shift is unsurprising because ever since Facebook acquired the Oculus for US$2 billion in 2014, it has consistently positioned the “Oculus as social media” (Egliston & Carter, 2022, p. 73).

The term “metaverse” originates from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, which was later reimagined as the OASIS in Ready Player One. The metaverse – or the promise of immersive digital worlds – is often synonymous with cyberspace, entailing technologies like VR, augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI). The prefix “meta” means “beyond” and “verse” refers to the universe. People participate in these meta-spaces as digital avatars to engage in fully immersive virtual worlds or some combination of physical and digital spaces that continue to persist even when people are not “there”.

Though the metaverse is technologically possible (Han et al., 2022), some argue the metaverse won’t truly exist until avatar representations can move between meta-space (Oremus, 2021). Regardless, there is an urgent need to shift away from the singularized, centralized “walled garden” Meta has framed in order to achieve the decentralized semantic web Tim Berners-Lee envisioned for web 3.0. In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline described the OASIS as “a new kind of fault-tolerant server array that could draw additional processing power from every computer connected to it.”

Similarly, many speculate that web 3.0 will be a metaverse designed around blockchain technologies and interoperable non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Blockchain technologies have already infiltrated the economic, healthcare, and global supply chain markets. NFTs are currently being used for digital art, digital collectibles, in-game objects, domain names, and event tickets or codes; while they lack a high degree of utility at the moment, they will likely become a central disruptor in the digital economy. 

The full potential of web 3.0 is still a few decades away, but experts consistently agree that it will involve digital enhancements achieved through VR, AR, and AI (Anderson & Raine, 2022). A recent report by PEW Research Center surveyed 434 researchers, activists, business and policy leaders, and technology innovators to explore visions of the internet in 2035 (Ibid). A large number of these experts focused on the transformative potential of these digital alternatives – what many describe as the true metaverse that lies ahead (Ibid). Some experts even predict that the future of the internet may include a seamless integration of physical and virtual spaces (Ibid). 

Currently, when we talk about the metaverse, we are largely speaking about disconnected metaverse platforms that can be accessed across various levels of immersion, including full-immersion (head-mounted displays), semi-immersion (large projection screens), and non-immersion (desktop-based VR) (Gutiérrez et al., 2008). The more immersive the access point is to social VR, the more presence a user experiences. Presence is a subjective state influenced by the quality of immersion and level of multisensory feedback that provides the user with the sensation of being in a virtual environment. Metaverse platforms are similar to other digital platforms, but often have a higher degree of presence. 

Common metaverse platforms include Spatial, Horizons Worlds, ENGAGE, VR Chat, Roblox, Metahero, and Decentraland. For the most part, these applications offer virtual social worlds constructed on blockchain technologies that allow users to connect inside VR for leisure, work, and school. ENGAGE (engagevr.io), a leading metaverse platform, is a publicly-traded company that was founded in 2014 as an XR studio featuring educational titles like Apollo 11 and the Titanic.

ENGAGE is accessible through VR, desktop computers, tablets, and mobile devices, and is the only social metaverse platform with ISO 27001 security certification. The platform has customizable representations (avatars), pages of virtual locations, IFX (3D objects), and a teleport function to reduce cybersickness. ENGAGE was recently used to house a 10-week Communication course about VR inside VR at Stanford University and is the same networked platform used in the two case studies below.

Teaching new media in metaverse platforms

From January to April 2022, I taught a second-year university course on technology and new media in the School of Communication at SFU from inside an Oculus Quest 2 headset (recently rebranded as Meta Quest 2) across a series of metaverse platforms including ENGAGE, Spatial, Horizon Worlds, Echo VR, Rec Room, and Oculus 360 films. While countless university courses have employed VR for exercises, simulations, and assignments, the practice of teaching an entire university course inside VR is rare, aside from the example at Stanford. 

Stanford’s VR course occurred in summer 2021 and was a 10-week class involving 8 30-minute VR class sessions (Han et al., 2022), while the course I taught at SFU was a 12-week class involving 10 class sessions, consisting of a 2-hour lecture and a 30- to 45-minute tutorial both conducted inside VR, totalling over 25 hours of time spent in the Quest 2 throughout the semester. While I had no knowledge of Stanford’s course when I designed the class, both courses used the Quest 2 headset and similar metaverse platforms including ENGAGE. The Quest 2 was selected for its powerful processor, accurate motion tracking, immersive capacity, wireless nature, 1832 x 1920 pixel resolution, and its comparably lightweight frame, which students still reported feeling heavy. The majority of students opted to attend class from inside the Quest 2 headset, but students were also given the option to participate from laptops, tablets, or smartphones. 

In addition to VR lectures and tutorials, students completed assignments from inside the headsets including building avatars and virtual worlds, streaming gameplay, and a class-wide research project about the ontological embodiment of learning inside the metaverse. During classes, students were encouraged to discuss course concepts, use IFX objects, make presentations from software programs like Canva, complete group work, and join me for regular field trips to virtual worlds. To discuss what it was like to take a university course inside VR, I spoke to three students about their experiences: Antalya Kabani, Darina Nikolova, and Phoenix Sage Hughes. 

How would you describe our course inside VR?

Darina: We took a normal course but conducted the majority of it inside the metaverse. We had lectures and discussions in virtual lecture halls and various other rooms, as well as participated in activities to enhance our understanding of what people can really do in the metaverse. 

Phoenix: VR allowed us to explore the course material in a more experiential way. Put differently, it was like we went on a field trip each day!

Antalya: The course was an unforgettable and somewhat surreal learning experience that allowed us to experience VR in a new and different context while learning about important topics regarding new media. 

What was your reaction to learning about new media inside of VR?

Phoenix: My reaction to learning inside VR was a positive one as it is the perfect vessel to explore the meanings of new media.

Darina: This opportunity made for a much more immersive and engaging experience and allowed us to have a deeper understanding of the course content. 

Antalya: More than anything, I was stoked. It was such a genuinely fresh and original concept and it was so exciting to be part of such an incredible group of people. 

What was your favourite application?

Darina: The ENGAGE app was definitely my favourite application as I very much enjoyed the wide range of activities and uses one has while using the app. We could draw things using 3D pens, go to a seemingly unlimited number of rooms, use IFX, host meetings, attend other people’s meetings, and so much more. 

Phoenix: My favourite application was probably Horizon Worlds, because I was interested in world-building and how different platforms give you tools and a framework to design within.

Antalya: My favourite application was, by far, Echo VR. It was the most ‘real’ feeling, and perfectly captured the unimaginable feeling of being weightless in space. I often found myself flinching and extending my arms out when objects neared me, expecting the feeling of being hit but instead being presented with little vibrations in my hands.

What was your favourite experience in the course?

Darina: Undoubtedly, watching the VR documentary Traveling While Black was my favourite experience. Everything appeared extremely realistic and as if it was happening right in front of your eyes. 

Phoenix: I really enjoyed the creativity and world-building activities that we did as a class. As an artist, I quickly became fascinated with the spatial and tactile experiences of creation. Having the ability to create and share ideas with my classmates in this way, in addition to reflecting on the experience in our first paper, was a significant part of the course for me. 

Antalya: Socialising in the coffee shop was arguably my favourite experience throughout the entire process. My classmates and I had so much fun playing around with the props and interacting with each other’s avatars, while ‘clinking’ our coffee mugs and receiving haptic feedback through the controllers. We laughed a lot in this space, and it forced me to reflect on the way our social interactions and relationships were transferred over into the metaverse.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Antalya: Learning in VR is nothing like what you’d expect. Simply existing within VR cannot be described to one who has never experienced it. The metaverse and all its features force you to think about how we understand the technology and the world around us, and the way we have come to live in a society on auto-pilot. In a way that can’t be described and can only be felt, the metaverse shows you how to disable that auto-pilot and be actively aware of your presence and existence within a space. It changes your perspective on how much power we have as humans not just within a society, but within ourselves.

Mooting in the metaverse

Midway through the semester of teaching inside VR, I was invited to sit in the public gallery for the “first moot in the metaverse”, hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law in March 2022. In partnership with LeClair and Associates and ENGAGE, the virtual legal trial was presided over by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ian Binnie, Justice Jodie-Lynn Waddilove of the Ontario Court of Justice, and lawyer Ron LeClair. 

“I was stunned at the level of technology on display,” said the Honorable Ian Binnie after sitting in the virtual courtroom as a judge from inside a Quest 2 headset, who described the experience as a bit Star Trek-like. “As someone who began to practice law before there were photocopiers and was amazed by wet copy machines… to emerge from that some 56 years later, to be sitting in a virtual courtroom was quite astonishing.”

“This idea was conceptualized back in March 2020 when the pandemic moved all our classes online,” says Ritesh Kotak, a Juris Doctor student and Tech Fellow, who recalls several moots being cancelled due to the pandemic. “I was a first-year law student and found myself on Zoom and Teams. I knew that if universities were willing to allow remote learning there may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be innovative in this space.”

Prior to law school, Kotak worked in innovative technology roles, which is how he became familiar with the Oculus. The Quest 2 was selected for the moot because of the “price and availability,” and they used ENGAGE because the platform allows “individuals to create realistic avatars” from user-uploaded images and its ability to implement an open-court principle for the public gallery through access points across multiple devices. 

“I believe that these devices are a tool and making them more accessible will spark new and innovative ideas,” says Kotak, who notes the participants were allowed to keep the headsets after the moot. The faculty hopes to incorporate more innovative elements into future moots (3D models, wearables, etc.). 

The future of academia in the metaverse

The case studies above illustrate how VR and metaverse platforms are being employed in post-secondary institutions in Canada. The benefits of immersive, interactive, experiential learning are undeniable. “One of the biggest effects I see VR having on higher education is that it will make education a lot more accessible than it is right now,” says Darina. “People could be anywhere in the world and still be present to take a university course.”

“I think VR will present opportunities in the more unattainable areas of education,” says Antayla. “For example, rather than having a guest speaker in a lecture, perhaps a class could visit the guest speaker in their virtual field of study and experience a more immersive and engaging learning experience. In terms of more hands-on implications of VR in the future, I think it could help with hypothetical scenarios. For example, the one activity we performed that guided us through resuscitating a new-born baby – this could be used in medical education for practical learning purposes.” 

The greatest hurdles of integrating VR into higher education – and other avenues of life – are related to the technology. Firstly, while the affordability, accessibility, and portability of VR/AR are improving, these aspects are still prohibitive to many people. Secondly, while the Quest 2 offers an exceptional VR experience, higher quality, higher performance models are needed to increase retina display and pixel density to achieve even more realistic immersive experiences in VR. Thirdly, network capacities are needed to sustain VR use in public spaces (universities, workplaces, etc.). At the start of the moot, Justice Binnie was removed from ENGAGE, and it took time to add him back into the virtual trial room. In our class, the SFU network routinely kicked us out of applications. Antalya observed: “Whether it was the internet connection or simply the lack of quality of the applications we used, the technical difficulties created a noticeable barrier between the immersion levels of VR and our experiences.”

The full picture of web 3.0 and the metaverse may still be decades away, but the use of metaverse platforms offers incredible immersive potential for education, work, and play. ν

References

Anderson, J. & Rainie, L. (February 7, 2022). Visions of the Internet in 2035. PEW Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/02/07/visions-of-the-internet-in-2035/

Egliston, B. & Carter, M. (2022). Oculus imaginaries: The promises and perils of Facebook’s virtual reality. New Media & Society, 24(1), 70–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820960411

Gutiérrez, M. A., Vexo, F., & Thalmann, D. (2008). Stepping into Virtual Reality. Springer London, Limited. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-84800-117-6

Han, E., Miller M.R., Ram, N., Nowak, K.L., Bailenson, J.N. (2022, May 26-30). Understanding Group Behavior in Virtual Reality: A Large-Scale, Longitudinal Study in the Metaverse. 72nd Annual International Communication Association Conference, Paris, France.

Meta (October 28, 2021a). Introducing Meta: A Social Technology Company. 

https://about.fb.com/news/2021/10/facebook-company-is-now-meta/ 

Meta (2021b). About. https://about.facebook.com/meta/

Oremus, W. (December 30, 2921). In 2021, tech talked up ‘the metaverse.’ One problem: It doesn’t exist yet. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/12/30/metaverse-definition-facebook-horizon-worlds/

 

Nicole K. Stewart is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is also the Canadian Ambassador for the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). Her research interests include platforms, digital skills, new media, and communication technology. 

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