A college campus represents so much more than an arrangement of land and buildings. As courses continue to move online, what aspects of a student's college experience are missing now that we're all at home? In collaboration with California Institute of Technology (Caltech), students use the online platform SecondLife to concept, design and build a shared virtual campus created for this new world of higher education. The studio has taken yet another life — it was recently accepted into the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference.
IInterview with Interaction Design instructors Santiago Lombeyda and Jennifer Rodenhouse, who conceptualized and designed the course.
ArtCenter: How would you describe this class?
Santiago Lombeyda: Now that we're constantly using Zoom, Discord, Slack, playing Fortnite and AnimalCrossing, Virtual Campus explores how we extend our digital personas into virtual worlds, and find creative ways to design spaces and experiences to enhance the way we engage with each other.
Jennifer Rodenhouse: Multiplayer platforms like SecondLife are public spaces that offer the art and design fields new contexts to research and communities to create for. In physical space, we design specific buildings, rooms and methods to support different ways of teaching, learning and making. That idea extends into digital space as well. How are our interactions different within these avatar-based communities? How can we leverage the very imaginative freedoms we have within these software spaces?
This course provided so many possibilities. I was free to explore interactions in any forms without restrictions.Eddie GaoIndustrial Design Student
AC: How did the idea for this class come about?
SL: In early 2020, SecondLife activity was almost dead, but with the pandemic, that changed dramatically. Astrophysicist and Caltech faculty George Djorgovski saw that this online virtual world was ripe for the current circumstances. Right from the beginning, George wanted a virtual world counterpart for Caltech and expressed interest in getting ArtCenter involved. That clearly meant Jenny.
JR: When Santiago and George contacted me about their work on virtual Caltech, Virtech, I was excited about the opportunity. The studio and the virtual campus became this experimental lab to collaborate. SecondLife offered a safe, confidential tool for ArtCenter artists and designers to rethink form, change perceptions about space and encourage interaction.
AC: What are some of the assignments and materials that challenge students to break new ground creatively?
JR: One assignment challenged students to reinterpret the function of say a highway, a fountain or hackathon in digital space. A fountain is no longer a fountain in SecondLife. You don’t get water from it; you can’t drink from it; but rather it serves as a symbol to collect people around it. It isn’t about copying, but rather thinking about a form's new purpose and how it serves the community, now this virtual space.
SL: We wanted students to break away from normal preconceptions of translating real-world objects and experiences into virtual spaces. And instead, help them conceive freely and creatively of objects, spaces and experiences as would only be possible in a virtual world.
AC: What were some of the most surprising ways students responded to assignments?
SL: It wasn't surprising that students embraced flying as a central part of certain experiences, like flying around a building-size drill from the ArtCenter shop. However, every time they embraced the potential playfulness of the space, as well as the potential for the space to be scenic, Zen and awe-inspiring, I found surprising in a very good way.
JR: I really loved how students translated forms from physical space, like coffee shops and classrooms, in SecondLife. We talked about their desire to return to those spaces in the physical world; SecondLife became a place for them to remember and pretend. There was a specific assignment: What do you miss about ArtCenter? It was the studio culture — seeing what other students were working on and being able to learn, but not directly ask. It's these peripheral presences that we're missing. Meetings or direct communication aren't the issue, but just the wonderful aura of undesigned studio energy and chaotic creativity that helps drive you forward in life.
AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?
SL: It may not happen terribly soon, but a time will come where virtual presence (as part of virtual reality, virtual worlds, or simply an augmentation on reality) will be a common part of our connected ecosystem. Our students will be prepared to excel on how to engage, create and be forward-thinking designers of this realm. But in the meanwhile, they will have original points of view and skills to participate and lead in the creation of all kinds of multi-user experiences.
JR: Populations in online multiplayer platforms have increased significantly (now larger than some countries) and are accessible by most computers or phones. While they might seem just fun or strange, they are also places to seriously research and design for. Each multiplayer site has its own cultural history, economy and governance, making a SecondLife, AnimalCrossing or Fortnite an exciting space for artists and designers to test, publish, sell and engage a global community of us-as-avatars.