Learning as avatars transforms virtual classrooms

November 25, 2020

By Clare Slipiec

Virtual teaching has become the new norm at post-secondary institutions during the current pandemic. As instructors adapt, SFU researchers Steve DiPaola and Jeremy Turner see opportunities to push virtual worlds further—as they are doing this semester by enabling their students to become avatars.

Students and instructors are using Tivoli Cloud VR in classes led by DiPaola, a professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and Turner, a Cognitive Sciences instructor, to set up their own personal avatars and join the virtual classroom. The researchers are using the new, open source virtual reality platform to experiment with advanced and cutting-edge VR techniques.

In the virtual classroom, users can navigate about the room and talk to other users. The platform is built to have fully functional media surfaces, allowing users to display slides, media files, and show videos within the virtual classroom.

Turner, who is using Tivoli Cloud VR exclusively to teach his COGS 100 course, uses a full VR system including a headset. This enables him to control his hands, head, and body movements more effectively.

“The Tivoli Cloud VR experience seems so natural that I forget I am teaching from my home and it feels just like the live classes I have taught for years,” he said. The platform can also be used via desktop computers in which case gestural movements are voice-activated and locomotion is controlled through the keyboard.

An interesting feature of the platform is the acoustic attenuation. One of the downfalls to using video conferencing platforms, says DiPaola, is something that he calls “pass the mic” where only one person can speak at a time. “That is like being on stage and not all students like that,” says DiPaola.

Voice attenuation means that audio becomes louder and quieter depending on how close the user is to a speaker when they move about the virtual space.

DiPaola has found this feature to be hugely beneficial for students because they can have more private conversations. They can move about the rooms and talk and ask questions to other users without being at the centre of everyone else’s attention. This feature helps students to feel more comfortable speaking up and supports more community-building.

“Tivoli Cloud VR is a multi-user virtual reality platform that is very next generation, meaning that it’s not just a game engine,” says Caitlyn Meeks, Tivoli Cloud VR CEO and co-founder. “It’s built to handle hundreds of people in the same space at the same time.”

Instructors across the university have been working to weave community into their online classes. “We’re really concerned about students and burnout and being alone,” says DiPaola. "This technology goes a long way to support the element of human connection missing from online interactions and remote classes."

DiPaola and his team of graduate students are currently exploring other uses for this technology, including the use of VR technology for training healthcare workers.