As published on the AAS Education blog here.

Over the past year, there has been a huge shift in live performances to online platforms. The music industry experimented with live events inside video games like Fortnite with millions of attendees. Many festival-goers experienced virtual worlds from 2D to Virtual Reality experiences at Burning Man. The theater industry has also experimented extensively with new media. Most notably, immersive theaters provided an entirely new type of experience that participants could actively explore. In general, we saw the entertainment industries moving away from pure Zoom performances towards more immersive environments, which give audiences more agency.

Science outreach is similar to a live show in many ways. Just like an actor, the lecturer engages the audience by telling a story using narration, visuals, and other means. Consequently, many techniques of capturing and directing attention can be borrowed and learned from the entertainment industry. The main challenge, however, is to use the techniques and modern technology meaningfully and preserve the educational value of the outreach activities.

In the past year, we have observed the fast-changing landscape of online immersive entertainment and experimented with the virtual worlds ourselves. We created a virtual tour of the Ryugu asteroid in collaboration with JAXA and implemented an installation of the Perseverance rover on Mars with Nautilus magazine. We have also been meeting and engaging with random people in the virtual Apache Point Observatory created inside Virtual Reality social network platform VRChat. Now we feel the need to initiate the transfer of experience accumulated by other industries to astronomy and other STEM outreach. Thus, we decided to organize a workshop and are honored to be supported by the AAS-EPD Mini-Grant.

The workshop will consist of two parts.

  1. The first is a series of pre-recorded interviews with leaders and innovators of online immersive technologies across industries—theater professionals, musicians and educators. We will record their tips for maximizing the potential of virtual worlds. The discussion will focus on the nuances of presenting in virtual worlds and the process of content creation.

  2. The second part of the workshop aims to bring together people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, arrange them in groups of 5-7 with complementary skillsets, and guide them through the creation of a virtual show or experience over a few months with a weekly commitment of a few hours. It will be a great opportunity to meet people beyond your professional field and collaborate on creating something experimental and completely new.

The overarching theme of possible workshop projects is science outreach in virtual worlds. Examples can include an interactive self-guided world that mimics a real observatory created within Virtual Reality social network platform VRChat, or a world made for live lectures with the possibility for attendees to run simple physical experiments and collect mock data, or a web-based immersive Augmented Reality (AR) experience accessible through mobile phones telling a story of the unique environment of a distant world, or an audio-centric virtual world telling about a space mission.

A workshop such as this is of particular relevance due to the limited accessibility of planetariums and science museums due to the pandemic. However, even in the post-pandemic world the use of immersive online worlds is essential for reaching audiences across all socio-economic groups in the United States. In our recent study we looked at the commute accessibility to the planetariums in the US and performed selections based on ethnicity, income, and home state. We found that some groups, such as American Indians and Alaska Natives, and residents of specific states, such as Wyoming, have particularly poor access to planetariums. The immersive web provides a means for reaching and engaging these audiences.

We look forward to having you in our workshop and seeing what you will build! Whatever your background is—an amateur astronomer, a musician, a scientist or a VR enthusiast—please register your interest here. The registration deadline is September 17th, and on October 1st at 6pm ET we will hold our 2-hour kick-off meeting for those who will decide to take part in the second part of the workshop.