This post is by Drew Harry, our second in the series of intern posts. He’s a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, working in Chris Schmandt’s Speech + Mobility Group. He’s written previously on the blog about his work on adding Wonderland presence to your buddy list.
Overview / Problem
One of the common uses of audio conferencing is to allow large numbers of remote people to be audience members in a distributed presentation setting. Often, the audio is accompanied with slides. There are a number of problems with this setup that we think an effective virtual world-based presentation system can alleviate. Wonderland provides much richer presence (easier to see who else is present), spatialized audio (more fluid pre- and post-presentation conversations), and a wider variety of media that can be used in the presentation. Indeed, tools like Second Life are commonly used to hold presentations. In our experience, though, existing virtual world presentation systems leave much to be desired. For the presenter, it’s hard to use your avatar effectively while presenting. It’s also difficult as a presenter to get much meaning out of the visuals of the world: much of the visual content of the audience is distracting and irrelevant to the things a presenter cares about like engagement and understanding.
Part of the problem, in our view, is that existing systems try too much to mimic the experience of a face to face presentation. By taking advantage of the flexibility of a virtual world, we think we can design a more interesting and effective presentation experience in Wonderland.
We designed and built a virtual world presentation system that begins to address some of the shortcomings of other approaches. The theme that ties this system together is spatiality. We try to use the spatiality of the virtual world to create new ways for the presenter to organize a presentation, for the audience members to communicate with each other, and for the audience to communicate with the presenter. In all these situations, an avatar’s location in the world adds meaning to what it’s doing.
We built a modular system, so you can use any of the pieces independent of the full system. You can find all the code for these pieces in the "unstable" section of the wonderland-modules project on java.net.
Using Wonderland’s drag and drop system, you can drag and drop a PDF onto the Wonderland window and the PDF Spreader will automatically make an object in the world for each one of the pages. You can right click on any of the slides and edit its layout properties — you can lay them out in a semi-circle or full circle, and adjust their scale and spacing.
By attaching slides to places, we’re implicitly connecting a part of the world and information. This creates an important foundation for the rest of the features of the presentation system. Future versions will also make it easier to bring in non-slide media like models, simulations, or interactive applications.
Now that the slides are spread out in the world, viewing the presentation means moving between slides. You can put your avatar on a moving platform to automatically move from slide to slide in synchrony with the presenter. If you don’t want to move with the audience, you can step off the platform and explore the presentation space independent of the main group.
Part of what’s confusing about trying to read a virtual audience is that you can’t tell as much about the connection between people as you can in face-to-face situations. In the virtual world, anyone could be talking to anyone else because being near someone doesn’t have any impact on your ability to communicate with them. With the Chat Zones system, you can easily manage group conversations in a visual way. If you press the “create chat zone” button on your HUD, a small blue circle will appear around you. You can communicate with anyone inside that circle on a special chat channel. When someone enters the circle, it will grow larger to make room for new people. You can also title your group, which people outside the group will see.
If you create a Chat Zone on the Moving Platform, it becomes part of the presentation and will move with the platform so your conversation groups aren’t disturbed as you move from slide to slide.
Chat makes sense for small groups of people, but it starts to become unwieldy with larger audiences. It’s also really challenging for a presenter to keep track of a chat conversation. There might be lots of interesting comments or questions in the chat channel, but identifying them among the conversational back and forth requires too much attention. To alleviate this issue, we created a system where audience members can leave textual messages at a point in space, and designate them as questions or comments. This non-chat system provides both a persistent and high visibility way to communicate between the audience and the presenter as well as connecting those messages to a position in the presentation. This helps gauge audience interest in a particular slide both during and after the presentation. (I’ll be switching the rendering of these comments over to Matt Bonner’s excellent annotation rendering that he described in his post.)
I’m really happy with the foundation and the vision of the system, but there are a bunch of rough edges that I would like to smooth out. The presenter needs to have a different HUD than the audience to better manage audience thought bubbles while also seeing previews of the current, next, and previous slides.
When we started this project, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for presenters to use existing slide decks. As presenters get more fluent with this new approach to presentation, they could include non-slide content like models and interactive applications and lay their presentations out in non-linear ways. For example, one simple place to start is organizing the slides into groups to show the sections of the presentation. Perhaps not all slides get addressed in the presentation, but the slides create a virtual space about the larger ideas of which the presentation was just one narrated path.
We’re also interested in how to scale up the sizes of audiences in a system like this. One of the benefits of a virtual world is the ability to involve radically more people in the experience than you could get to be in one physical place. The kinds of tools we build will need to deal with the challenges of scale. This design was done with an eye towards scale–Chat Zones make more sense the more people you have –but there are other issues with scale like moderation and access control that we would need to think more about.