In virtual space, the sky’s the limit — literally. Your Avatars can fly and teleport and change form in an instant, even in a relatively mundane collaboration meeting or classroom setting. Ben Erwin of Silicon Harlem returns to discuss the development of XR’s version of “Netiquette.”

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. Every session is meant to provide you with the value in microlearning, about the way technologies will change the approach of education, the creation needed and the tech savvy brilliance to support the advances of our digital transformation. Join us today with my next guest, Ben Erwin, who is an expert on the XR ecosystem, from hardware and software platforms to the who’s who in the industry. Recognizing the revolution of how we consume information being brought about by spatial computing and volumetric video, Ben has focused on creating new experiences and WebXR and social VR. As director of Silicon Harlem’s annual tech-enabled community conference since 2018, Ben programmed the agenda, developed the marketing and produced the events for the next one, which will be held at the Forum of Columbia University in October. Thanks so much for joining me, Ben, today.

Ben: Hey, Julie, it’s great to be back.

Julie: And so much to talk about with everything that’s going on. I know we’ve had several different conversations about our intake and insight into the way things have changed before the coronavirus has hit our communities. But we talked a lot about the communication of technology, the humanics behind it, and how to adapt with the interaction. So maybe if you want to open up with a bit of your expertise and what you’re seeing today in our communities and in business and how we’re dealing with each other on communication.

Ben: Well, I think that the phenomenon that we’re seeing right now, especially since it kicked in — it was a very sort of interesting timing, how the Educators In VR conference happened. The outbreak had already happened in the east, and this conference happened the week of February 17th. And it was so phenomenally successful that it was a proof-positive use case that social VR is not only a thing, but something that many different types of use cases can take advantage of. Number one is conferences. And so HTC Vive, last week, had another phenomenal conference. They had scheduled an in-person conference and they had to cancel it because of the pandemic. And they held it very successfully on the ENGAGE platform last week. We’ve also seen a big surge in Zoom, which is a traditional platform, uses browsers as an install base. People are getting used to the idea of not only working remotely, but collaborating remotely. Teachers are giving lesson plans over the Internet. Students are learning as classes, in groups over the Internet. This is a very rapid paradigm shift that we’re seeing. And what gives me a lot of heart is how well it’s going.

Julie: Yeah, I think everybody’s kind of– well, we’ve had to, we’ve been forced to take that step back and figure out both in the classrooms as well as in business on how are we collaborating, how are we working together, how do we now collaborate when I’m at my house and you’re at your house and we’re so many miles away? And we do have this technology now that can be put in front of us, we can connect to, we can actually see and visualize things like 3D models to work on and to collaborate, to develop and design together. All of that technology is possible now. So opening up that new means of communication, where before it was always face-to-face or it was over the phone or just even in a conference call, we can now introduce more online platforms and virtual platforms to collaborate. And I think that’s really opened the eyes of many to see, first of all, how well your team communicates. How well does that teacher communicate with the kids? How do the kids adapt to that? How do co-workers adapt to communicating online? And I think that in the last couple of weeks, we’ve all grown into that challenge of figuring out what works best for some. And obviously, we’re still working through different use cases. But the amount of XR collaboration platforms that are out there — we as a team at MetaVRse and with some other partners have identified over 75 different platforms that all include different features — and I think this is where it comes back to how do we digitally interact with these online collaboration platforms to discover what the best use case is and how to use them in the best way.

Ben: Exactly. The question is how. And my outlook on things is, just in general with the whole spatial computing space, is that we shouldn’t try to reinvent 2D into 3D space. And moreover, technology has forced us to go into 2D where 3D — we talked about this in the last session — is sort of our natural way of things. But when we’re doing this new type of collaboration and this new way that it affects us in different ways of evaluating us, I think that we need to think about clever ways — and certainly a lot of people are — about how we can most productively interact, how we can do things by ourselves and then bring and present them on teams and groups and classes. So I think that one of the main things that we need to be looking at are some of the friction points in terms of this. And because a lot of these are so new, they’re a little bit rough on the start up, and I think that one of the main friction points is the ability for people to have it. We don’t have a huge install base of VR, let alone standalone VR like Oculus Quest, yet. A lot of these platforms — thank goodness — are available for Windows. And I’m talking about the 3D social VR conferencing, not just Zoom, which is obviously something that’s good for desktop, tablet, and mobile. But one of the things that I’m concerned about is that not a lot of them have Mac clients yet. And so a lot of families have two computers in the house. Some people have PC and Mac. Some people are just only Mac users. And so there were one of the concerns that I have trying to start up a few different types of conferences — not just conferences, but just interactions, and getting together with groups of people — is, what do we do about the Mac users who can’t log on? And that is where I think that the WebXR, things like Mozilla Hubs, are very important, because they are browser-based. And so the sooner that we are able to have browser-based social VR experiences, while that install base is rolling out, the more quickly people can get on board with this experiment with new ways of doing things, and that will help move the whole thing forward. And because everybody’s working from home and being isolated right now, that there’s not only time to do this, but there’s a necessity.

Julie: Yeah. And just going back to the different purposes of meeting — and I think this is really being analyzed now that we’re all working remotely — is, what is that use case? And is it going to be valuable to meet for this purpose? And which platform will best provide the means of communication in each platform as well? I know when… I’m going through right now the profiles of all these collaboration platforms, it’s really opened my eyes to the different ways you are able to communicate, and little things like having a whiteboard or sticky notes or interaction, actually, between people in the space and the capacity is one of the key metrics and measurements of these XR collaboration platforms. And there’s a difference between interacting and then just observing or attending. There’s so many different ways that you can interact in these platforms and highlight those human behaviors that were never recognized before, when we were actually face-to-face.

Ben: Well, and also, the difference between VR and AR, and how that’s going to affect things. Because VR, being totally immersive and you’re inside of a fabricated world and you’re moving around and the avatars are there. When you’re doing this in AR through — right now — a Hololens, Hololens 2, Magic Leap, or as the lightweight consumer model like the Nreal glasses roll out and people start adopting those, platforms like Spatial will be very interesting because they do things like sticky notes, and they have avatars of people projecting in front of you. And I think that that’s really important. And on avatars, I think avatars is a very important thing. Because that’s one of the things that the ENGAGE platform does so well. And there’s a lot to consider with avatars. One is the uncanny valley, because if things don’t look perfect enough, then they look off. Or you could have something like Altspace VR, which is before you get to the uncanny valley where things are sort of cartoonish. And I think looking down the road, one of the things that is going to be very important for social VR — and I hope that somebody… I’m sure a lot of people are working on this — but I think that having the ability to make your own avatar and then taken on the different platforms is going to be very important, and you can change avatars like you can change clothes for the day. But nonetheless, they’re your avatars and they’re not necessarily a platform-specific avatar.

Julie: I completely agree. We had a conversation about this yesterday because my daughters, they were in the Altspace platform with Michael McDonald, who was teaching them, doing an interactive English lesson with them in Altspace. And one of my daughters commented that she could look down and she could see her body and she liked that. She could see her legs and her shoes, even though they were cartoonish. And she was in ENGAGE a couple of days before where she couldn’t see her legs. That was important to my daughter, that she could see her body and she liked that. So I really think, going back to your statement of Avatar’s and how important they are, it’s not so much how you’re receiving information from somebody else that looks like a cartoon character. You need to be able to feel like you’re somebody inside this space. And that’s where the customization of Avatars is, in being able to see your hands and even your feet. What are your feet doing? Or what did they look like? And your outfit? Because you want to make sure people are taking you seriously when you start having conversations about business or education or therapy or whatever the conversation is, there needs to be a seriousness about it. And if there is that uncanny valley where you don’t believe who that person is, then already you’ve eliminated a layer of communication. Avatars and customization and being able to port your avatar from platform-to-platform. I can see being a top feature list for many of the platforms in the future.

Ben: And with that, that’s a very important point about how the avatars look and behave. And this is only going to get better from here. One of the things that we are seeing right now is… so, if you’re in VR and you’re using controllers, you typically have hands in these platforms, but the hands are doing what the controller is doing. So if you set your controllers down on the table, your hands are doing something kind of funny. Or if you need to look around your room so you put your VR headset up on your forehand, then it looks like your neck is craned back. Also, the hands are disconnected from the arms. These are things that are obviously going to be improved with the technology. But I thought it was a very important thing that we touched on when we spoke yesterday about the bandwidth consumption that it takes to broadcast a pose over the Internet as opposed to a pixel. And all these Zoom calls are clogging up the pipes because you have– yesterday my wife was taking a yoga class on Zoom and it had 25 tiles on it and many of them were lit up with video. That was a lot of bandwidth that was being consumed there. But when you’re dealing with avatars, there is an efficiency to the fact that these are just these little gestures and these little poses, even though it’s happening at a high frame rate and it’s happening in real time, it’s very, very small data as opposed to having to repaint an entire frame as a photograph.

Julie: It gives the term “body language” a whole new dimension. [laughs] Right?.

Ben: Well– and sometimes it can be funny. You put like you said, these are going to be used in serious contexts. So the kind of weird things that might happen just because somebody put their controllers down or put their headset up, I’m sure that the people who are designing these interactions will be putting in catches for this so that you can lock a pose without it looking really peculiar. And there’s also the etiquette of it. Back in when Web 1.0 was becoming a thing, people coined the phrase “netiquette”. We need some sort of social “VRiquette” or something like that where it’s– especially if you’re at a conference. I found myself walking around, trying to check out the thing from different perspectives, and then one of the session leaders was basically like, “hey, you down in front! Stop blocking the camera!” And I was like, oh, I was like, I think I’ll just stay still for the rest of this.

Julie: Yeah. I was watching Caitlin Krause’s presentation from Educators In VR and there was somebody that was flying through the room, obviously checking out that transporter feature. And there’s certain things that you need to learn from that. She was on the stage. She was standing right in front of the presenter. She was walking all around. And it became distracting because you could see her and features like that, where the developers of that platform need to say, “OK, we can’t allow users to walk on stage, or this space or this space.” And and we’re learning every day as we go through these platforms and discover these… etiquette disturbances, shall we call it? I think it’s something that we all need to to learn about. And it becomes part of that humanics topic, is that interaction of being social and using the digitization to communicate and to behave, and the behavior when you’re using this digital interaction needs to be proper, it needs to be polite. It needs to be considerate. In Altspace and through Educators In VR, we call them “trolls” — people who come on and make disturbances in these public forums. I think we have a long way to go to build the proper etiquette online, but I believe that we’ll have a collaborative, unison voice in making sure that people don’t disrupt these online conversations. But we certainly do need to address social VR etiquette, not just from an education perspective, but definitely from a business perspective as well.

Ben: And this is all part of what makes it such an exciting frontier. I mean, everybody’s learning and that’s all good from the perspective of this is so new. And I think that is very important, especially because we don’t have the large install base, and the coronavirus has pushed back the supply chain of the demand. So Oculus Quests sold out for Black Friday. It was completely gone by Cyber Monday. It briefly came back at the end of January. And then I’m sure that there are massive amounts of industrial procurement going on. So it’s really hard to get a fix on, like, how long this is going to take to roll out to have all of these headsets in a larger and larger scale. And there’s also a lot of competition to Oculus Quest that’s going to be coming out. So they’re not going to be the only standalone headset on the block. They may have been the first and currently the best. But the fact that these platforms are available on so much different hardware right now — the tethered hardware, the HP, the Rift, the Vive, Valve Index — give a lot of people a chance to get on. But right now, people who can get on via desktop, tablet and mobile, and just experiment and just get the idea of what this is like, and that really, this is the new way of things. It’s a great opportunity to learn because that learning curve is going to go on for a little while. But then once that netiquette that we’re talking about sort of sets into place, it’s going to be sort of like once everybody got used to using the web and then people came on and we’re making newbie mistakes. Right now, it’s completely OK to make those mistakes.

Julie: In wrapping up this episode, there’s so many hardware options that are out there, but moving to the collaboration platforms: take this time to learn that it’s not just about Zoom or Google Hangouts, which have to date been very dependable collaboration platforms, but only in 2D and through spatial computing — through virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality — we’re now able to move these meetings one-on-one, teleconferencing, even trade shows, we can now move them into a three dimensional space. So taking the time to learn about these different platforms and what the best solution is for the purpose that you need to meet for is something that I believe the ecosystem will start to prepare reports and curation documents to be able to help the massive public understand how to move into this new online and virtual world. Stay tuned: I’m actually a part of building a resource out for the mass public, because there are so many different features. There are so many things to consider with this new way of human interaction. And maybe just to close this off, Ben, is there any other high-level advice to anybody learning and listening about these different collaboration platforms?

Ben: Don’t be afraid to just jump right in and definitely don’t underestimate the importance of this paradigm shift. I mean, this is– 2020 will be remembered as the year that this happened. And when people look back at the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to see this as sort of a jumping-off point. So now is an opportunity for people to get ahead of this curve, because the curve is coming. The curve is here! So there’s a lot of things that are out now that you can experiment with. There are a lot of things coming out that people are working on in the background that none of us know about yet. So expect that. And lastly, I would just like to give a shout out to all the people who are making this happen. They’re working hard. There are all these software engineers who are just doing absolutely brilliant work and experimenting and thinking outside the box. And that’s really helping us all. And then there are the early adopters and the innovators who are providing the feedback loop necessary to improve on these products. And it’s happening more quickly than we’ve ever seen before. I mean, when people adopted the Internet in the first place, it was very slow to ramp up. Now, everybody has the Internet. So there is a different volume of people who have the access to get this. And hopefully it will translate into access to more people, for more people.

Julie: That’s a great way to end our podcast today for listeners. Thank you so much, Ben, for being on my podcast.

Ben: My pleasure, thank you so much.

Julie: Thanks, everyone. My name is Julie Smithson and this is your XR for Learning podcast. Take care, everyone.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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