Research in Social VR

Brief

Recent happenings, such as more open, widely available, more accessible platforms and a global pandemic, have helped create new possibilities to observe and analyse interaction in virtual environments (VEs). In order to facilitate small group discussions, networking, addressing open-ended problems, and building communities in Social VR on the topic of Social VR (as a New Medium for Remote Communication & Collaboration), my co-organisers and I hosted two CHI workshops in 2020 and then again in 2021.

The venue for the workshop was built on Mozilla Hubs with logging functions. In addition to designing and hosting virtual workshops, we also conducted some research to try and understand how participants behaved in social interactions during a keynote, small group breakouts, and informal networking/hallway conversations as part of the 2020 social VR workshop.

In collaboration with…

CWI, FxPAL, Toyota Research Institute, University of Glasgow, et. al

Design Research Focus

Our workshop design, in 2020, was planned as a hybrid with a virtual VR component and in person component, but we pivoted to a fully virtual workshop due to the pandemic. While redesigning the programme for virtual delivery, we explored three research questions:

  • Are metaphors from prox- emics in the phsycial world useful for analysing proxemics in a virtual world?
  • What is the relationship between groups, en- vironment and activity in a virtual workshop?
  • What social cues or environmental artefacts help or hinder the virtual workshop experience?

In 2021, we designed the workshop as a virtual workshop using lessons learnt from hosting the workshop in 2020.

Scope

The primary design focus in creating the virtual environment was to facilitate a workshop in which participants were distributed in locations around the world and on a side note to spark conversations whilst inhabiting a VE.

The format of the workshop was designed to accomodate a keynote, followed by a series of paper/idea presentation, three breakout sessions tackling different topics, a summarisation within group to conclude discussions, presentation of the group discussions to the wider set of workshop participants and a debrief before disbanding.

In 2020, I was able to persuade Prof. Blair MacIntyre to keynote for the workshop. He talked about ‘Remote Conference Participation in Social Virtual Worlds‘. In 2021, I invited Dr. Mar Gonzalez-Franco to keynote. She talked about ‘Open Challenges on Social VR‘.

Design Approach

For the purpose of hosting the workshop, the virtual environment was made of one large communal space and three connected breakout rooms. However, the move to a virtual-only workshop, presented an opportunity to investigate how participants (primarily on laptops) behave in a VE built for a specific purpose.

In addition to having a pre-planned schedule, expert participants and a carefully guided workshop experience in a crafted-for-purpose VE, we collected track and log positional data while recording observations during the workshop. We also conducted semi-structured interviews after the workshop.

Summary Experience

The half-day workshop was over-subscribed and was one of a few workshops that participants could attend despite the conference (CHI 2020) being cancelled. Prior to the workshop, we ran a familiarisation day in which participants could login and explore a training virtual environment. Participants were encouraged to use the controls to move and “fly” in the virtual space, toggle “spatial” audio on/off, and upload files in order to present their presentation slides. Most of the participants also took the time to customise an avatar to represent themself at the workshop. It was a common ice-breaker topic to begin conversations in the workshop.

Having a familiarsation session minimised the time spent correcting ‘technical issues’ in addition to identifying potential bottlenecks. For instance, we assembled all the slides that participants wanted to present at the workshop into one presentation which we controlled on the day so participants could focus on giving their presentations.

Each one of the three breakout group was also assigned a ‘host’ (ourselves) in order to take notes and help moderate discussions. Each breakout group were assigned one of three topics. In 2020, the subject topics were user representation & ethics, evaluation methods, and interaction techniques. In 2021, participants tackled social cues, interaction techniques and personal space & VE design.

In addition, to having fruitful discussions, participants from one breakout group ‘jumped’ over the balcony into the ocean in order to play with an octopus and a tanker. Thankfully, they had composed themselves enough by the end of the workshop to pose for the all important group selfie.

As mentioned, we had a logger to collect positional data during the workshop from all participants (with consent). After the workshop, we conducted a 45 minute semi-structured interview with nine participants to get qualitative feedback on the perceived quality of their interaction/communication, their evaluation of the platform (Mozilla Hubs) and their thoughts on the workshop in comparison to others they had attended in the past.

PS:

Turns out that that proxemic interactions in VEs, at least in an academic workshop, are congruent with those in a physical space minus the ability to fly. Similar to interactions in the physical world, the group formations formed by our workshop participants adapted to the virtual room size and self-formed familiar conversation clusters. Full details of the analysis of participant behaviour can be read in a CHI 2021 paper. You can also have a go at looking at the data. Ayman released the logger we used in the workshop. Julie presented the work, on our behalf, in a Mozilla Hubs version of Japan.

Pre-record video accompanying our CHI 2021 paper

You can also access the CHI 2020 and CHI 2021 workshop proposals to read about the call for participation used in order to sollicit exciting ideas for presentation in the workshops. My colleagues Ayman and Jie also produced blog posts about the collaboration.

As evidence by our tweets, we were all very excited about running the workshop and presenting our findings!