On 22nd November 2022, Professor Donald Hislop, and Luciana Blaha (Associate Professor, Heriot Watt University), presented a seminar on the implementation of artificial intelligence technologies, which was organised and hosted by the Scottish AI Alliance. While it was an online event, it was not on one of the usual technology platforms such as Teams or Zoom, that have become very familiar to many since the start of the covid pandemic. Instead, it occurred in a virtual world, on a technology platform called Gathertown.
Gathertown is part of a technological development towards the use of immersive, virtual worlds, which comes under the ‘metaverse’ label, an increasingly popular, and much hyped concept, which some argue is how the internet, and virtual communication will evolve.
Gathertown allows people to enter a 2D virtual world using a phone, tablet or computer, where they appear as an avatar (which can be customised). People’s avatars can then navigate around a virtual world. To simulate real world social interaction, when two avatars go close to each other, their camera’s and microphones become active, and they can have a private conversation. It also has the facility to undertake ‘traditional’ style presentation, in a virtual seminar room, with the presenter’s avatar’s on a podium, and the attendee’s avatars ‘sitting’ on virtual seats.
The technology worked smoothly for the event (see screenshot – courtesy of Kathy Horne), which began with the presenters having some virtual socialisation with attendees (via their avatars moving together), and was then followed by an interactive presentation and discussion on developments with artificial intelligence technologies, and their implementation and use in workplaces. One key finding was that most attendees labelled themselves as ‘pragmatists’ regarding AI technologies, and that while they were sceptical about some of the hype regarding their use, they were optimistic regarding the potential for these technologies to have positive benefits for work, and society, if managed and controlled effectively.
Overall, it was an effective event, and an interesting experiment in the use of virtual technologies.
Kathy Horne, a retired lecturer in computing, and a technology enthusiast, was part of the audience at the event summarised her experience as follows:
“I felt that the experience of using Gather Town was positive overall. Compared to conventional video applications, social interaction was easier and fun. I enjoyed creating a customised avatar and being able to move about the rooms and talk to different people. It provides a nice social edge. I sat on a comfortable chair in a breakout area and chatted to another attendee. The user interface has a retro video game feel and I believe can be customised to the users requirements. Only being able to move around the room in four directions and using the arrow keys was a bit clunky and annoying at times. However, I really enjoyed the experience.”