Last year, I became absorbed by what seemed like one of the most fascinating developments in business and technology that no one was talking about (and still no one is talking about): a publicly-traded company called eXp Realty, with tens of thousands of employees and a market cap that surpassed $1 Billion on its first day of trading on the NASDAQ, which operates from exactly zero office buildings. Not a single one. Instead, the business makes use of an entirely digital campus inside a virtual world developed by a VR company called VirBELA. That means if you’re hired by eXp Realty, then your first day on the job requires you to show up to work as an avatar inside a video game-like landscape.
I’ve previously written about this company on Singularity Hub. But now as a Faculty member at Singularity University, I’ve had the opportunity to build my own virtual world experience inside VirBELA.
Earlier this year, VirBELA began to experiment with a project called The Open Campus, which is a free-to-use version of its virtual campus software. It’s essentially a virtual reality version of a public space like a park or town square. Anyone can download the software, create an account, build an avatar, and get started walking around, exploring, and using the world. The fact that the software runs on most commercially available consumer laptops (and doesn’t yet require the use of head-worn VR devices) means that its particular space has the potential to be one of the more scalable options out there.
It’s the same shared virtual space for all users, and I routinely meet people there from around the world. The campus has large auditoriums for big presentations, a smaller conference hall and classroom spaces, and team rooms designed for meetings that have media surfaces that can collaboratively display internet webpages, google docs, or other online materials.
Designing the experiment
Working with the VirBELA team, I recently had the opportunity to design and build a learning experience for my colleagues at Singularity University entirely inside The Open Campus. As part of what we call “Test Kitchens”—an internal concept at SU used to experiment with new curriculum and learning designs—I developed a three-part collaborative learning program. The first part involved a basic orientation to the space with icebreakers for participants to get to know each other. The second was a full lecture with slides, and the third was a breakout discussion activity. And I was surprised at how well the virtual environment facilitated what would traditionally require an in-person experience.
Twenty participants from the SU staff, including SU CEO Rob Nail, joined the 90-minute session. The program took place in The Open Campus’s conference hall space, where I was able to instantly change the seating arrangement with the press of a button and project slides with video and sound. I quickly toggled between partner desks with two seats for one-on-one discussions, traditional lecture-style seating, and big round conference tables that each seat four people for the discussion portion at the end.
Getting meta about the future of virtual worlds
The topic of the lecture was the future of virtual worlds (a core research area of mine at Singularity University), which added an ironic meta-layer to the session, given that we were using a virtual world to host the event. My initial takeaways are that I was more than impressed with the capabilities of the software to facilitate some nuanced types of interactive learning—approaches that would never be possible with online platforms like Zoom or others. The key ingredient is the spatial environment and the idea that you can physically walk around the space as if you’re in a real room. At the core of what makes a 3D spatial environment like VirBELA useful is that it can recreate the sensation of being physically present with other people, even though you’re in a fully online environment.
My colleagues had a similar reaction.
Jeff Rogers, Principal Facilitator at SU, said on our internal Slack channel that it, “really had the feeling of ‘bumping into’ friends from far-flung corners of SU.”
Amanda Manna, VP of SU’s Uncommon Partners Lab, responded, “I’ve tested this with Aaron previously and was still surprised how good it felt to all be together.”
The event wasn’t without the expected hiccups. A handful of people had audio challenges and a few were unable to speak inside the space. Getting used to projecting a Google Slides presentation created some A/V challenges at first, but most people were impressed with the visual fidelity of the slides that had moving images like gifs and videos with sound once we got them working.
Going forward, I expect to continue experimenting with spaces like The Open Campus, and my sense is that platforms like these will become an increasingly useful and practical option for individuals hoping to host online meetings and events. If the example of eXp Realty is any indication, online virtual worlds in the coming years will begin to play a massive role in the future of work and collaboration, and I’m excited to get to work ensuring that Singularity University is a part of that future.