Our publisher has let us know that we're just two weeks away from the release of Virtual reality methods: a guide for researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As a result, we've been working on some of the promotional material. The most fun element of this is a launch video, which will feature shortly on the Policy Press website. For most authors these are a bit of a low-tech production; indeed, many of them seem akin to hostage videos, with authors apparently forced against their will to nervously talk about their new book into a laptop webcam. Given that Tess and I claim to be tech nerds, we thought we'd better try to do something a little more interesting, even if neither of us can claim to be natural performers on camera!
We decided we should create VR avatars of ourselves using the online platform Altspace and film our avatars talking to camera. But to make it cute, we wanted to stand 'next' to our avatars, wearing VR headsets while we controlled them. As a result, I broke out the trusty greenscreen, building on the techniques I'd learned about making lectures at home during the pandemic.
How did we do it? Well, we had two headsets running Altspace which Tess and I wore, with a third Altspace avatar running independently off a PC which formed the 'camera' filming the other two avatars. All three were placed in the same generic home environment so that we appeared together and could run the output from the camera avatar into OBS and overlay it with greenscreen video of myself and Tess in the headsets. Then it was just a question of positioning our avatars in the virtual space and ourselves against the greenscreen so that we all appeared to be standing next to eachother.
Okay, given that the new book is marketed on the idea that you don't have to be a technical expert to do interesting research in VR, this was maybe a bit of a nerdy approach. It took us about an hour to set everything up and then another 40 minutes or so actually recording what became a 90 second launch video. You can see why it took so long by having a look at this brief blooper reel.
This week we've also made a start on a new VR project using Altspace with the working title 'Interviews in the metaverse'. This is a collaboration with Michal Rzeszewski (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland), Leighton Evans (Swansea University, Wales) plus Tess and her colleague Gerd Weitkamp (University of Groningen, Netherlands). The idea is that we're getting students and colleagues to interview eachother across borders, meeting as avatars in Altspace. We're doing this in pairs, with Michal and Leighton doing the Poland/Wales interviews, while myself, Tess and Gerd do the England/Netherlands interviews. Our volunteers come in and use the standard Oculus onboarding process, which teaches them how to use the controllers and gives them a chance to get used to moving around in VR. Then we sit them down and put them in a shared Altspace environment with someone from the other country. The idea is to chat a little about the experience of being at university in the different countries before coming out of VR for a normal face-to-face interview about the experience of talking to someone in VR. In the setup below you can see one of my volunteers - she's chatting in VR, but for the sake of making research notes, I've also created a recording in OBS capturing a stream of the output from their headset (so we can see what they see) synced up with webcam footage of their movements in the real world.
It's been really interesting seeing how far the metaverse discourse of 'meeting' in VR works in practice, particularly in terms of how researchers might do ethnographic interviews in VR. The two volunteers we've had on the UK side so far had quite different responses, though both agreed that they wouldn't want to spend all day in a headset doing this - the usual issue about the discomfort of having a heavy box strapped to your face. They did, however, both say that it felt like they'd met the other person in a very different way to if they'd just chatted on Zoom, though the cartoony avatars were a bit offputting.
We're going to be running this on-and-off for another few weeks until the students disappear for the summer. We might then roll it out with a few PhD students/staff as well just to get a cross section of views about how well these kinds of tools work as a way of doing ethnographic interviewing. For me, the most uncanny element was watching Tess' avatar talking to one of our voluteers, hearing her voice whilst the avatar reproduced her posture and her typical gestures with scary accuracy. One for the philosophers there I think...
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer