The sense of presence: Virtual spaces during the pandemic and beyond

Photo of Wurster Hall
Eliana Marcu/Staff

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We’ve all been there before: those awkward moments on Zoom calls where everyone is silent and staring blankly at each other’s videos, unsure of what to do next. The interactive in-person class experience has been reduced to static rectangles on our laptop screens. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to work and learn in primarily remote environments, forcing us to find ways to replace in-person interactions.

Created by the XR Lab at UC Berkeley, Virtual Bauer Wurster is a virtual reality, or VR, platform that emulates the architecture studio environment in Wurster Hall. It was launched in spring to encourage collaboration and community building among students in hopes of overcoming the challenges of a virtual learning environment. Accessible from an ordinary laptop and the comfort of your own home, Virtual Bauer Wurster is a space where students can discuss and showcase their architectural models to their classmates.

“We were particularly concerned with keeping students in touch with each other because we are a design community,” said Luisa Caldas, the director of the XR Lab and the team lead for this project.

Entering Virtual Bauer Wurster, you navigate the space through the first-person perspective of your avatar. Despite the mostly grayscale color scheme, the space and building structure imitates what it’s like to be back in Wurster Hall. You can make small talk with your classmates in the studio, gather around a classmate’s desk to discuss their work or explore the inside of different building models. Looking outside the windows, you have a prime view of the Bay Area. The sound experience also replicates real life. With the different sound zones, your voice can carry throughout the space to speak to multiple classmates at once in the main classroom. In the corridor, you can pull aside a classmate to chat more privately.

“There was this excitement,” Caldas said. “(The classroom) just came to life, and I could hear laughter in my classes during the pandemic.”

Although the platform does not support video conferencing yet, the flexibility to simply move around spaces and to talk to whomever you want and nonverbally point to objects with the laser pointer in the virtual space successfully replicates offline interactions.

To Caldas, the power of VR lies in its ability to provide an immersive experience that other widely-used virtual spaces lack: “the sense of presence.” It provides the opportunity for students to be “learning by doing,” which can be more impactful than typical audiovisual ways of learning. For architecture, in particular, student-created physical models of buildings become a 3D environment that users can immerse themselves into — a powerful tool that can be used in design classrooms beyond the pandemic.

“The sense of presence in spatial design is crucial … you understand so much about your building and the size, the scale, the way to move around,” Caldas said.

Although Virtual Bauer Wurster was created primarily for architecture studio classes, it can be applied to many different disciplines across education and beyond. According to Caldas, it is unique in the sense that it allows users to create new 3D environments and make them nested within each other, creating environments within environments.

But the modular concept and technology behind Virtual Bauer Wurster have the potential to create things other than buildings, such as studying detailed structures of molecules or hosting interactive exhibitions.

“So it becomes a platform where anyone can really organize something that they wouldn’t be able to organize in real life,” Caldas said.

VR falls under the term extended reality, or XR, environments which integrate virtual features with real life. XR includes other real-and-virtual experiences, such as augmented reality, or AR, where virtual components are “superimposed” into the real world, and mixed reality, or MR, where virtual components are merged into the real world.

Similar to how the smartphone has become an integral part of our everyday lives, Caldas believes that XR technology will eventually become a universal tool as well, in both the field of education and our everyday lives. AR has already been assimilated into our day-to-day lives, with Snapchat filters, games such as Pokemon Go and other practical uses such as simulation websites to figure out furniture placement in your home. Because it is most accessible from handheld devices rather than headsets, Caldas sees that AR is “going to be the big boom in the industry.”

But with more technological advances in the future, MR is “going to be where things get really crazy.”

“I think one of the challenges for education is going to be the paradigm shift,” Caldas said. New forms of technology have all been met with some kind of resistance to change. With the introduction of the iPhone, people were hesitant to switch from their Blackberry — with the full keyboard — or Motorola flip phones. Why would I need a phone with a touch screen when my current phone is perfectly fine? Looking back on that almost 13 years later, we cannot imagine our lives without it. Caldas envisions something similar with XR technology.

As remote interactions have become more routine, we’ve come to embrace new forms of technological communication. Perhaps someday, our everyday lives will be consumed by virtual reality in ways that we can’t envision quite yet.