Thursday, June 11, 2020

After COVID-19 was detected in Austin in mid-March, the University of Texas moved all of its classes online for the remainder of the semester. In this series, we explore how faculty in the College of Fine Arts are adapting their curriculum to an online format.

MJ Johns Assistant Professor of Practice, Arts and Entertainment Technologies

MJ Johns, Assistant Professor of Practice, Arts and Entertainment Technologies

Instructor: Assistant Professor of Practice M J Johns, Department of Arts and Entertainment Technologies in the School of Design and Creative Technologies 

Tell us about a class you’re teaching this spring.

This semester I taught Level Design, Game Prototyping, and VR for Games. By far the most challenging class to move online was VR for Games. 

What was a challenge you faced in moving instruction online this spring?

My VR class has faced logistical challenges ever since its inception. First I taught it in a Mac lab, but Mac computers are not particularly VR compatible. Next, it was in a small classroom with barely enough room to set up the hardware. This semester I was delighted to find an ideal space in the PLAI lab, which has VR-compatible computers and tons of open space. 

Students working on VR

The VR class is an opportunity for students to use a wide variety of VR hardware including HTC Vive, Oculus Quest and Google Daydream. They have access to this technology in the lab, and they work in teams solving problems with the hardware and designing new and interesting experiences. With the move to online classes, we lost access to the hardware and lab space basically overnight. 

How did you solve it?

Beginning in the second half of the semester, students transition from exploratory mode (trying all the different hardware) to a deep-dive into one chosen hardware, and they spend 9 weeks designing and building a complete game. The announcement to transition online came just two days after we had formed their teams for the big project, and right before they chose hardware. 

During the first few days of spring break, I spent a lot of time brainstorming how we would proceed. My first concern was getting them access to hardware. I did not want to turn this class into a theoretical lecture series, because so much of what we do depends upon trying things out for yourself and experimenting. I came up with 3 viable options:

  1. Teams would be allowed to meet in the PLAI lab with strict social distancing rules, only one team using the space at a time, and all hardware thoroughly disinfected between uses.
  2. Each team would take one VR headset home (we had just enough headsets for one per team), and one member of the team would be the “dedicated tester” who would test their game on the headset as they developed it.
  3. Every student would be mailed a Google Cardboard headset ($8 each), and students would build VR experiences on their own phones to test in the Cardboard headset (Cardboard is compatible with the vast majority of smartphones including both Android and iOS).

I pitched these three ideas to the department, but in the process of writing up the pitch, I realized the third option made so much more sense than the other two. It wouldn’t require students to come back to campus, and it would give all students equitable access to “hardware.” 

Make-shift VR set

So I got to work coordinating the mailing of Google Cardboard headsets to each of the 18 students in the class, and one to the TA. In the second week of spring break, I started putting together some step-by-step tutorials for students to get started building Cardboard apps for their phones. 

How have your students responded in your class?

During the extended spring break, I sent a survey to my students to find out what they were most anxious or concerned about with moving online, and also to see what aspects of this they saw as an opportunity, as well as to verify smartphone access. Here are some of the highlights. 

Anxious about:

  • “Having to talk/be on camera”
  • “Holding group members accountable”
  • “Making a fun game with the Cardboard”
  • “Losing the experience of working with other vr hardware”
  • “Time management”

Possible opportunities:

  • “Increased productivity due to reduced commute time”
  • “Work at home with my own computer”
  • “Learning how to work remotely as a group is a good opportunity; it’s just a little scary”
  • “I won’t have to buy food on campus anymore, I’ll be home and can make it”

In our first week back, kicking off our Zoom Room classroom, I tried to assuage their concerns. We came up with plans for holding each other accountable by doing “stand-ups” twice a week where students would talk about what they were working on. We used Slack for this, so there was a written record and they could easily go back to see what a teammate had done in the last session. 

Screenshot of the AET 335k VR class on Slack

Screenshot of the class on Slack

We also talked about the benefits of having “hands-on” practice for working in a remote development environment, which is quite common in the video game industry. Students would also benefit from understanding how to build projects to their own phones. 

Make-shift VR set

Part of our online change involved teams creating blogs where they could document their progress, which are now public and can be included in their portfolios. One student’s final blog post eloquently sums up the challenges their team faced and how they overcame:

“I had never developed a level for VR before, so there were some issues that I didn't see being issues till they were. Conventionally to travel from spot to spot the player would just walk there, but our VR platform only has 3DoF [degrees of freedom] so instead of walking around, we had a teleport function. I didn’t take this into account initially and ran into the issue of not being able to clearly see each teleport node. So instead of clear paths on the ground to each node, I closed those paths and simply made sure that you could see both of the other nodes clearly.

Verticality/Scale was a bit of a challenge. I didn't really know how big the world was in relation to the player and also how big the mushies were, at least not till later. Best solution to this was pretty much just making sure to go into the level and test it to see how big everything felt and then go back to adjust. Adjusting the player height was also helpful, since we could effectively control how what the player could see, like the edge of the level. In this situation, our VR platform's 3DoF made things easier to execute.”

Mush Ambush blog.

Mush Ambush gameplay:

Game play of Make shift VR sets

Have there been any innovations or solutions that you plan to carry into in-person instruction in the future?

The addition of blogging to document their progress has been a great success, and I definitely plan to use that in all my classes moving forward, whether online or not. I also think future iterations of this class, even in-person, might include at least a short project for the Cardboard so they have that experience of building a game to their own phones. 

Closer look of make shift VR set

What else do you want us to know about this teaching experience?

I compiled their work into a video that shows what all 6 teams made for their Google Cardboard projects: 

For anyone with an Android phone, you can also download and play their games yourself, with our without a Google Cardboard device.

You can also read about their process in their blogs:

For more Teaching Remotely stories, read here:

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