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Sharing Innovations and Creativity Beyond Limits in the Visually Rich Metaverse

 

The pandemic has changed the world in so many ways. It has transformed how we work, live and socialize; this includes how events are conducted. A conference is an example of one such event. Many have moved from physical conferences to virtual conferences due to several reasons. Among the benefits of organising virtual conference are; cost effective, no capacity constraints, reduce cost for delegates, wider global reach, higher attendance rate, more flexible and convenient, cleaner for environmental, as well as provides easy networking and analytics. The use of technology to provide an immersive and engaging conference experience in an online setting is the goal of virtual conferencing. This type of conference offers the same chances for learning, sharing of knowledge, and networking as much as traditional face-to-face conferences.

 

Utilisation of Gather Town for virtual conference

 

Gather Town (also known as Gather.Town, or simply, Gather) is an interactive virtual space that simulates real-life, in-person interactions. It is a platform that integrates key functionalities of web-conferencing tools such as Google Meet or Zoom with visual elements of 8-bit retro video games like Pokémon, Mario or Legend of Zelda. Gather Town is considered a low-res metaverse. Unlike the stereotypical metaverse that features a sleek alternate reality, Gather Town provides a new iteration of the metaverse by featuring a low-resolution graphic style resembling nostalgic old-school games with minimum lag and low bandwidth consumption.

A virtual conference is often linked with a lack of connection and the joy of being together physically. Gather town overcomes the issue by revamping the synchronous event into an immersive and interactive experience that mesmerizes participants from the beginning to the end. Attendees can navigate within virtual realms by using a customisable 2D avatar just like a video game. Gather Town recreates the feeling of presence you have when you're close to another person in real life to embrace realism and encourage meaningful human connection. You can only hear another person's voice and see their video-chat feed in a Gather area as your avatar draws closer to their avatar, and you can even bump into each other and have a quick catch-up talk in the Gather Town space.

 

The success of organising IUCEL2022 and i-PicTL2022

 

This year, the Centre for Academic Development (CADe) hosted two virtual carnivals related to teaching and learning innovation with great success: the International University Carnival on E-Learning (IUCEL2022) and the International Putra InnoCreative Carnival in Teaching and Learning (i-PicTL) 2022, which were held in June and October 2022, respectively. The carnivals aimed to foster an environment of innovation and creativity in teaching and learning among educators and students. More than 300 scholars from both local and foreign learning institutes participated in each event, bringing multiple pedagogical approaches and meticulous advances to the forefront. These two conferences were held on the aforementioned platform, Gather Town, to provide an opportunity for academics and students to examine crucial topics in education and to further promote the creation and advancement of quality teaching and learning innovations.

 

The concept and design

 

The Gather Town spaces used for IUCEL2022 and i-PicTL2022 are named IUCEL Town and i-PicTL Space, respectively.

 
 
     
Figure 1: Attendees move their customisable avatars around with the arrow keys, panning into and out of video/voice chat conversations as they walk past other users.
 
Figure 2: Exploring the interactive digital world on Gather Town makes attendees feel the appeal of the atmosphere and that it’s more immersive and fun experience compared to other web conferencing tools.
     
 

IUCEL2022 is the first attempt of UPM to host a virtual event using Gather Town. To mesmerise the experience, the IUCEL Town emulates the green campuses of UPM, which is the home to several lovely picturesque sceneries – cow and equine farms, unique buildings like Anjung UPM, and trails lined with pine trees to name a few.

     
 
     
Figure 3: Presenters have the options to present the poster embedded in the poster board or directly share their screen.
 
Figure 4: Like in-person conference, visiting poster and exhibition booths as well as interacting with presenters can be seamlessly done on Gather Town.
     
 

Figure 5: IUCEL Town replicates the landmarks of UPM
 

Driven by the theme “InnoCreative Beyond Limit: Shaping Future-proof Education”, i-PicTL Space features an innately futuristic design conducive to online public interaction. For this purpose, the many uniquely exquisite landmarks and buildings in UPM soil have been reimagined into new-fangled space stations; gracefully sailing in the dimension of the i-PiCTL2022 metaverse.

 
 
Figure 6: The design of i-PicTL Space is outer space themed with a touch of retro-futurism.
Several familiar landmarks of UPM have been transformed into sci-fi space stations and spacecraft.
Strolling between these space stations in a digital world is definitely a nostalgic yet fresh and exciting experience.
 
 

Seamless sharing experience

 

Instead of hopping from one web-conferencing link to another, attendees can just walk from one session to another across the maps of IUCEL Town and i-PicTL Space. Unlike other platforms, IUCEL Town avoids awkward transitions between presenters by enabling the users to just walk up and start screen sharing. Attendees like juries can ask questions by directly unmuting themselves or via chat. These interactions become more seamless as walking in and out of conversations has been made coherently and naturally in IUCEL Town and i-PicTL Space. 

The users can easily hop between conversations and thus skip clumsy moments and glances that can be commonly experienced in other virtual conference calls. The audience can navigate the venue with ease in a visually rich atmosphere. Comparable to most in-person conferences and seminars that have opportunities to exchange ideas and business cards through private conversation and poster visits, the attendees can engage in fruitful and congenial dialogue via private verbal conversations in a myriad of private areas allocated in the Gather Town. Visiting posters and interacting with innovators in real-time are achievable in Gather Town. This has ultimately created spaces for the participants to communicate, gather, open up, ask questions and collaborate.

 

A magnificent blend of intellectual and leisure elements

 

To prevent virtual meeting fatigue and keep the online conference live and engaging, the organising team have prepared copious interactive embedding content. Both leisure and educational games were available across different venues of IUCEL Town and i-PicTL Space.

 
 
Figure 7: About 20 entertaining and relaxing games were featured in i-PicTL Space.
 
 
 
Figure 8: One-third of the interactive games and activities that were accessible on i-PicTL Space were for educational purposes.
These games carry a momentous and meaningful message, viz. conservation of the environment and protection of our mother earth.
 
 
 
Figure 9: To gamify the virtual conference, a treasure-hunting competition was introduced during the event.
Participants competed to seek all the clues, passcodes and gems.
 
 
 
Figure 10: To garnish the low-res metaverse with a touch of sci-fi, several holograms were created to explain the game rules,
and the vision of UPM, or to make announcements.
 
 

Positive feedback from participants

 

After embarking on the IUCEL Town and i-PicTL Space, the feedback received from both events was overall positive and many participants perceived that the experience was meaningful and inspiring. Many educators have recorded good impressions on their social media.

 
 
Figure 11: The word cloud generated from the feedback of the participants showed positive commentary and response.
 
 
 
Figure 12: The workshops that were organised in conjunction with the conferences received great responses.
For instance, the Gather Town workshop recorded a full house of participants.
 
 

Conclusion

 

Organising virtual conferences via Gather Town is a mould-breaking yet engaging choice. The interaction among the audience and their engagement make the immense effort of building Gather Town worthy.

 

Save the date

 

For those who have not experienced it, we highly recommend you join us. The next i-PicTL will take place in June 2023. We are looking forward to meeting you!

 

 
Prepared by:
     
 

Dr. Chong is a Senior Lecturer in immunology at the Department of Aquaculture, Faculty of Agriculture, Universiti Putra Malaysia. As a passionate advocate and practitioner of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), he seeks to integrate multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression in teaching and learning. During the pandemic crisis, he was actively involved in sharing various web tools in UPM, to facilitate the transition from a physical learning mode to a virtual learning form. He led teams to design and create Gather Town spaces for IUCEL 2022 and i-PicTL 2022.

Email: choumin@upm.edu.my


 

Dr. Suriana Sabri is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Academic Development (CADe), UPM. She is also an associate professor at the Department of Microbiology in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences. She served as the Vice Chairperson for i-PicTL2022 and as a committee member for IUCEL2022.

Email: suriana@upm.edu.my

 

Tarikh Input: 05/12/2022 | Kemaskini: 06/12/2022 | azryadeny

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