Design Professor Wins NSF Grant to Study How VR Can Improve Online Meetings

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Photo of Joshua McVeigh-Schultz standing in front of a bush wearing eyeglasses, blue shirt and gray hat

Virtual reality could transform online meetings of the future and make them more effective than meeting face to face, predicts San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Design Joshua McVeigh-Schultz. With a new National Science Foundation grant, McVeigh-Schultz will explore how social augmentations in VR could improve networked meetings.

The online meeting room of the future will look much different, McVeigh-Schultz says, as designers and engineers race to upgrade their products. What’s at stake is much more complex than profits and Zoom fatigue. It is social responsibility. Design interfaces on video meeting applications will one day have a major impact on how people interact.

“As we’ve seen with social media, decisions that designers make can have profound implications for society,” McVeigh-Schultz said. “We need to be thoughtful and enable both researchers and humanity, more broadly, to be aware of the social [abilities] we build in these platforms. We have an opportunity to support more empathetic and effective communication among groups.”

For example, visual feedback can boost meeting participants’ awareness of how much each person is talking, potentially fostering more balanced participation among team members. These cues can also help people manage their emotions, come to decisions more quickly or visualize and document their collaborations.

The ultimate goal? Create social augmentations enticing enough that even people meeting in the same location will want to jump into VR or XR, mixed-reality environments that blend shared online worlds. In other words, this research proposes VR meeting tools that are not merely a substitute for face-to-face interaction but could actually improve on it for workplace meetings, according to McVeigh-Schultz.

“We have an opportunity to support more empathetic and effective communication.” — Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, assistant professor of Design

The three-year, $125,996 grant allows him to conduct lengthier and deeper research than would be feasible in the fast-paced tech industry. Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox open-source browser and Hubs social VR web app, will serve as an adviser to the project; since 2018, McVeigh-Schultz has worked closely with the Hubs team. One of the benefits of working with Mozilla is that privacy is such a core value. “Companies like Facebook want to track everything you do online. What happens when that same approach is applied to everything you do with your headset?” McVeigh-Schultz said. By prioritizing privacy in social VR, researchers can help people become more informed and empowered consumers.

The NSF-funded project is part of a research collaboration between McVeigh-Schultz and University of California, Santa Cruz, Professor Katherine Isbister. McVeigh-Schultz and Isbister’s research looks at social VR as an example of “suprahuman” technology, a term Isbister coined. Rather than focusing on the powers of a single person, the term points to the social powers of groups — enabling collaboration in new ways.

The grant includes funding for San Francisco State students to serve as research assistants to McVeigh-Schultz. Students will help develop and test prototypes, among other tasks. The research team has begun work on a testbed for building out social augmentations in VR.

— Matt Itelson

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