The Virtual Field Trip: Sharing academic experiences of COVID-19 through online 3D digital content.

2nd October 2020
The Virtual Field Trip: Sharing academic experiences of COVID-19 through online 3D digital content.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first identified in December 2019, resulting in a sustained global pandemic. On the 29th of February 2020, the Republic of Ireland confirmed its first case and in the following weeks, multiple instances were reported causing the government to issue strict lockdown guidelines to delay the spread of the virus. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have drastically disrupted higher education in Ireland, including the closures of schools, universities, and colleges. As a result of these closures, many academic research projects have been dispersed across the globe. This has meant that regular standing meetings have become the new workday normal through the use of digital communication and collaboration platforms that combine workplace chat, video meetings, shared file storage, and collaborative writing applications. The physical closure of office spaces and the scattering of the workforce have adversely impacted researchers in ways that have far-reaching and wholly untold economic and societal consequences that are comprised of various complex social and economic issues. As higher education establishments in Ireland begin to formulate and execute various plans to return to campus, the following project seeks to capture personal accounts of lock-down from members of the academy through the integration of 3D digital media and cross-reality (XR) technology. Through the combined use of social virtual reality platforms and interactive multimodal data, it is possible to engage different academic groups with participation in the uniquely creative form of story-telling and 3D content creation, paving the road to recovering a sense of normality, and the nuances of everyday life as experienced through the COVID-19 lockdown. This type of situational narrative media is particularly relevant while the pandemic stabilizes as now is the time to reflect on and learn from the experiences of the general academic population and to create a meaningful narrative rather than focusing on the trauma it has brought upon us.

The Impact of Covid-19: Telling your story

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on researchers and their work has been varied. One major concern of this is that the quantifiable aspects of the COVID-19 phenomena will take precedence over more nuanced, qualitative narratives of the people who it has impacted upon, stories that are grounded in the unique contexts of the places and practices of everyday academic life during the lockdown. To help us begin to explore and unpack the deeper impact of COVID-19, we ask that members of the academy provide a brief summary of how the pandemic has affected their academic activities and retell their stories via immersive virtual environments they have created themselves. This includes but is not limited to: delays in publishing/submitting a key paper(s), pause on experiments/research plans, reduced ability to work due to additional caring responsibilities, etc. This will then serve as the foundation for telling stories in social VR.

The Virtual Field Trip Process

Virtual reality (VR) as a medium is defined by its ability to convey a sense of presence that promotes immersion in an activity. Unlike two-dimensional media, like traditional text and film, engagement within VR encourages exploration and discovery through immersion. Via the use of Social VR, this also means that your story and experiences can be shared and discussed with others through activities organized by way of a virtual field trip. The processes outlined below can be explored to create a 3D environment within which to tell your story and to achieve our virtual field trip goals. These steps have been designed to utilize open-source and free-to-use software to minimize cost and maximize accessibility. No coding skills are required to follow this process. To assist you where we can we have provided visual PDF guides and accompanying video tutorials on the following website: https://virtualarchitectures.github.io/ground_truthing_and_virtual_field_trips/

The process we outline has five stages:

  1. Ground Truthing – This first stage is valuable as a storytelling activity in and of itself. The aim is to visit a specific object or place that represents the impact of COVID-19 to you, to explore it first-hand, and to capture it by taking images and recording sound. This can be done using a smartphone with built-in apps, or by using separate devices like digital cameras and audio recorders that provide ready access to the resulting files. To prepare for the next stage, your photos must be taken in a very particular way to ensure you have overlapping images from every possible angle of the object from which they can safely be taken.
  2. Photogrammetry – Photogrammetry is the science of obtaining accurate measurements from photographs. At this stage, we will use the free and open-source software Meshroom to automatically analyze the digital photographs you have taken and reconstruct a textured 3D model from them. The results will depend on the number and quality of your original photographs, but you can always go back and take more photos to add and improve your result.
  3. Model Cleaning and Preparation – Invariably the photogrammetry process also captures information that you didn’t intend from the surrounding environment. In this stage, you’ll be introduced to the free and open-source 3D modeling package Blender. Blender can be used to remove unwanted information and reduce unnecessary detail and complexity in the model so that it can be used effectively in a virtual environment.
  4. Assembling a Virtual Environment – In this stage, you’ll assemble a 3D scene by arranging your model(s) and adding sound using the Unity game engine. You’ll then use the AltspaceVR Unity Uploader plugin to load your scene as a template on AltspaceVR and make it accessible to others. Worlds can be co-created by assembling multiple models in Unity. Alternatively, you can create links between worlds later in AltspaceVR.
  5. The Virtual Field Trip – Now that your scene has been loaded into AltspaceVR you can invite your students, colleagues, or friends to join you for a virtual field trip to share stories about the impact of Covid-19 on your academic life.

 
An AltspaceVR environment.