Influencing Conversation Through the Design of Virtual Worlds: Part III (Furniture)

Furniture, Furnishings

Laura Nicosia (2008) argues that a distinguishing feature of Second Life is the ability to radically redesign the virtual environment “with a few clicks and drags” (7). While not everyone shares Nicosia’s level of comfort with “building” in Second Life, it’s undoubtedly true that a basic amount of Second Life competence will permit drastic, rapid change of the environment. She notes that chairs and desks can be summoned in a snap, walls can be torn down, the lighting changed, etc. As you probably know, in physical space, a chair is often used as a means of support that does not tire one’s legs. This is not a useful function in a virtual world, as avatars obviously do not tire. Someone might rightfully wonder why something like a chair would be needed in virtual reality. Since physical relief is not an option, what are the functions of chairs in a virtual world? For one, the positioning of chairs in a space, virtual or physical, influences the kinds of learning that take place within it. One example of this is that chair placement and similar seating considerations determines possibilities for connected gaze, a powerful way of deepening a connection to someone (there is eye-gaze effect in virtual reality as well) (Garau, et al. 2003). In conventional classrooms, the way chairs are placed serves to separate the teacher from the students in a way that makes the teacher the source of authoritative knowledge. Students have to turn in order to look each other in the eye, and the default gaze is on the teacher.

In a conversational learning space, though, Huang observes that furniture can be “particularly well suited to supporting collocated collaboration and providing a means of indicating co-presence”. It’s a commonplace in research about physical learning spaces that the use of shared, round tables instead of a traditional grid formation of individual, square desks, is conducive to conversation. Huan goes into impressive detail regarding the way the location and design of furniture impacts collaboration. Much of these considerations are just as relevant in virtual worlds, which just like the physical world have a spatial dimension. So, in a world like Second Life, the possibilities for chair design and placement are quite expansive, and the decision is not trivial. Bean-bag chairs are often seen as having a relaxing effect. Do virtual bean-bag chairs have the same effect?

There is a growing consensus that design choices in virtual reality reflect pedagogy as much as they do in physical reality. Indoor spaces are often seen as supporting formality and authority relationships between learners and teachers (Minocha, Reeves, 2010).  For more conversational purposes, for example discussions about literature, one educator quoted recommends a relaxing, outdoors space (117). The science teachers quoted show a preference for indoor-looking spaces, and the literature teachers prefer outdoor ones. One teacher details how taking the roof off of a room drastically changed the conversational quality of the space for the better (117). Chairs have a purpose in structuring discussions and giving social signals. With regard to the layout of the virtual world as a whole, the authors speculate that a de-centered architecture emphases the pedagogical principles of constructivism.

Alongside furniture, there are other visual and structural elements worth careful consideration (e.g. posters).  A study by Cheryan et. al.  which deserves more attention drives this home by showing how changes in the design of a virtual classroom for computer science learning had a positive impact on women’s interest in computer science. As the authors note, “one way environments affect students is through identity cues, or structural elements that communicate who belongs in that environment” (1826). The design of a learning space will influence a user’s sense of ambient belonging. In a collaborative conversation, participants should feel like they belong in the space. Designers should embrace the challenge of trying to see the world from the perspective of the many different possible users inhabiting it, since stereotypes can be projected through design and have consequences.

Conclusion

This literature review focused on scholarship which addressed certain design features of virtual worlds (avatar design, realism, and furniture) and their impact on in-world conversation. In each of these areas, the research is conclusive that design choices influence conversation.

Because the existing studies on avatar design are so suggestive and provocative (e.g. Bailenson, Beall), more research needs to be done on how other changes in avatar design influence user behavior and communication. What sorts of avatars make users more willing to express themselves, or to listen to others? More research should also be done on how avatars can be used to enable role-playing conversational activities. The possible detrimental effects of avatar-mediated communication, like identity confusion or dishonesty, also require further exploration.

As for realism, a common dictionary says that realism is “the style of representing familiar things as they actually are”. As the digital becomes more familiar, and notions of “virtual reality” further complicates our ideas about reality itself, this definition will get more troublesome. As VR enters the mainstream, the lines between virtual and “real” get blurrier. In sum, there is a lack of clarity about what researchers mean when they say “realism”, and this should be remedied so that its effects can be better studied.

Also, more research should be done on whether an entertaining and eye-catching visual world detracts from focused conversation within it. What sorts of users are particularly at risk of being distracted by visuals to the point of being unfocused? A more extensive vocabulary that brought nuance to what seems to be meant by the terms “eye-catching” and “entertaining” would also be useful. Thought should be given to designing virtual worlds that appear different to its various occupants, such that one user could “turn off” potentially distracting elements in a way that only affected that user’s environment.

The common complaints about Second Life and other graphically rich MUVE platforms have little to do with the idea of a 3D virtual world itself. A common woe is that the hardware required to run them is prohibitively high-end, or that the cost involved in maintaining and developing them is prohibitively expensive, or that seamless interaction within them requires a better internet connection than is commonly available. These are hardly convincing deterrents. In the world of computing hardware, one year’s high end is the next year’s standard. The cloud-based web hosting behind services like Second Life is getting rapidly cheaper. Internet speeds rise. My prediction is that MUVEs will have a growing appeal to educators who are frustrated with two-dimensional online collaborative environments, and that they will be incorporated into MOOCS as a way of fostering conversation and a sense of co-presence among learners and teachers. Further research will help develop best practices for conversation-friendly MUVE design.

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