Unpacking the tech for the Berlin team’s workshops – my first experience with virtual reality

By Anca Velicu, Romania

This is the story of one of the most exciting days from my secondment in Berlin (July-August 2017), namely the day in which I, a rather not-too-playful researcher, first used VR and liked it a lot! Let’s start with the beginning.

Deborah Rodrigues, DylanYamada-Rice and Justyna Zubrycka, the three musketeers representing Fab Lab Berlin in the MakEY project, had just received the day before the boxes with VR system that they will use during their workshops and kindly invited us, the secondees in Berlin, to an ‘unboxing session’. Dylan’s call was full of excitement:

I managed to pick up the new VR equipment today which is exciting. Justyna, Deborah and I will do a trial workshop and session to run through the VR equipment tomorrow and how it might work with the children between 1 and 4pm at the Vai Kai space. If you want to join you are very welcome. Marcus[1] will be there but other than that it will be just us three trying to figure it all out.”

I took up the opportunity and went there, to see the equipment and how it works, and also to visit the Vai Kai space. Vai Kai is a start-up company that has created Ava Kai dolls, a screen-less smart-toy, made in wood; the creative process of Ava Kai was previously documented by Dylan Yamada-Rice). I had the opportunity to see diverse prototypes for Ava Kai dolls, and Justyna kindly told me the story behind these prototypes, how do they, the creators, chose among them and what role children played in this process, as Vai Kai team wanted to listen to children’s voce in designing the final product.

When I got to the space, Deborah and Justyna were already there, trying to install the system, which consisted of:

  • A powerful gaming laptop computer known as Alienware with very futuristic features, lots of blue-led lights on it; not very much to Deborah taste due to these luxuriant lights, but surely appealing to kids; small talk with Deborah about why just some of the operating systems are VR friendly; really, why?
  • A headset that at a first glance seems to me quite heavy to be worn by a young child
  • 2 hand-controllers (it seemed to be a difficult task; I started to worry that my lack of experience with joysticks-controlled video-game will prevent me being able to use each hand for a different task.
  • 2 base stations: “They will define the VR playable space”, explained Deborah to me.
  • 1 HTC VIVE tracker for introducing things from the real world into the VR space (at the end of the introductory session, this base was not yet installed).

Installing the system was both hard(ware) intensive and soft(ware) intensive and Deborah played the main role. She looked like a XXI century wizard: Getting the space for positioning the base stations (in a shared creative space, this could be a challenge, but not a problem), installing the controllers, restating the computer, creating various accounts on platforms, restarting the computer, something is wrong, restarting the computer, getting to the Steam platform (a game platform that allows enrolled members to play different games that are hosted on the platform, including VR ones), putting the headset on and off of her head to see if something (hopefully) happens, restating the computer… As I was just watching her, some thoughts about makerspaces and the adjacent processes took form in my head.

Firstly, about the image of the trainer as a knowledgeable person. When workshops are provided, the sensation for the public is that the trainer can easily navigate through any topic, being very simple for him or her to handle any tools and, more importantly, that it was simple from the beginning. It is hidden for the participants, fearful apprentices in that topic, the processes that person engaged in for getting there. The participants just compare themselves against his or her knowledge displayed at that moment and the difference can be overwhelming. Assisting this VR workshop preparation, it occurred to me how beneficial it would be if the public of a workshop could get to become aware of the invisible work that takes place behind the scenes prior to the workshop and in preparation for it. It would help the public to identify with the trainer in the hard and sometimes frustrating process of gaining knowledge. And this is exactly what working in a makerspace provides: the awareness of the commonality of the iterative process of becoming skilled by a trial and error approach. Your struggle is not an exception, but the rule.

Secondly, it struck me how the global and the local collided in this space and in MakEY project. Thus, this very global VR equipment, used by a small international group of people – handled by a Brazilian woman and a Polish woman, in Berlin, in front of a Romanian researcher, waiting for a British-Japanese child to test it – obstinately required a German settlement (that would be a German bank account) to function. In fact, during my months in Berlin in a very international environment (I met there French, British, Italian, and Polish people, to mention just a few), I somehow started to take this international feature for granted in makerspaces. And all at once, the country’s limitation popped-up, surprisingly, for putting to work a virtual environment.

But let’s go back to that moment: Deborah set the system and into the headset the expected environment appears. Just in time for being tested by Marcus, a young child, who had just arrived.

Picture3.png

The first step, tracing the border. During the meetings with my MakEY colleagues, we discussed the ‘space’ part of the ‘makerspace’ notion. Should it be a properly defined, physical space or is it more about the tools, or even the people/ culture in it? Could you create in an instant a makerspace anywhere, or do you have to symbolically delimitate a space and ‘consecrate’ it to this purpose? Similarly, the term ‘virtual reality’ seems to correlate with the idea of de-territorialisation; nevertheless, it is as much about what happens in the real space as it is about virtual space.

So Marcus started to trace an imaginary border that would close in the space between the two stations, linked by wires using the computer (for the sheer amusement of a colleague from that very shared space: “Wires!!! Are we in the 20th century?”). It was a trial and error process sometimes, because Marcus relaxed his grasp on hand-controller and the border didn’t close, or because we, the other adults there, would impede him in his task. After some attempts, they finally got it.

Secondly, getting in and playing. Marcus started to play and initially I didn’t understand anything about what he experienced, until Deborah said we can see on the computer screen (2D, but still) what he was seeing. After some short guidance from Deborah on how to use the two hand-controllers, Marcus started to explore what he could do on that environment, what colours or pattern he had available. From time to time a, “Wow! That’s cool!” was heard from under the headset, accompanying spectacular lines and colours on the screen.

Picture2.png

As Dylan and I were also keen to play with the new ‘toy’, we convinced Marcus that for the sake of research, of course, we should try it ourselves. Dylan was the first to go and Marcus spontaneously took the role of the facilitator, carefully helping her to adjust the headset and secure the controllers in her hands, and teaching her how to use them. It was such a natural behaviour that I realised how beneficial it would be for kids in makerspaces to share their knowledge with their peers.

In the end, it was my turn to try it. Not so intuitive as Marcus had been, I needed Deborah to explain to me more extensively how to use the controllers. But afterwards, I felt like I was in a candy shop, wanting to try everything: drawing with bubbles, stars, with all sort of colours for lines and all sorts of models (Disco was my favourite). One can create a colourful and almost magical world there and I suddenly understood that it wasn’t a joke when Deborah said that the ‘danger’ with using VR by kids is that they would not want to get out of it. I did not want to either.

Nevertheless, I had to unhook myself from that magical world, as Deborah still had work to do (installing the base that would allow to children to bring their real token into the virtual space) and Marcus was wanting to figure out what was it with that teleportation option he noticed on the screen.

Picture4

After this experience, while leaving the Vai Kai space some questions occurred to me:

Is drawing or writing in such a virtual space a form of (self) exploration or a form of communication for the children performing it? Is this experience a solitary one (honestly, I was not aware of people around me when I was in the VR environment, and all my drawings were to explore the system possibilities and to enjoy myself), or could this also be a social one? If we keep the dichotomy playing in/ learning in place, how much learning happens for young children when playing with VR?

Is it only appropriate to familiarise them at this age with this technology, and expect that in a second stage they would use VR in a more formal context for education (e.g. for learning anatomy or geography)? How much creativity (as it is nevertheless limited by the software used and other limitation) and how much curiosity (e.g. after exploring the affordability of a ‘game/ platform, how engaged would stay kids with it) can such technology develop in young children? And, last but not least, as it currently is a pretty expensive technology, how many children or how many schools could afford to have it and use it for educational purposes?

Disclaimer on the absence of bibliography: I know that some of my questions are to be found already in the literature (global versus local, the social reproduction versus mobility, inequalities in access versus the promise of empowerment etc.). My colleagues and I encountered them when read for and wrote the literature review report on the topic. But because I wanted this post to be the testimonial of a personal experience, I chose not to offer references.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Deborah, Dylan, Justyna and Marcus for allowing me to share this experience with them. I would also like to thank Dylan for her useful comments to first draft of this article.

[1] For privacy reason, this is a pseudonym.

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