Identity/Space/Place workshop

Post by
Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort) and Velvet Spors (2017 Cohort)

📷 Felicia Black

Hi, our names are Harriet and Velvet, and we’re PhD students within the Horizon CDT. In September 2019 we ran a full day workshop as part of the Digital Economy Network summer school. The workshop was designed to reach academics from across a broad spectrum of subjects and schools of thought, and bring them together to explore how identity, space, and place (ISP) were present in their research.

We ran the workshop as a group of four researchers; Velvet, Harriet, Luke and Hanne, all of whom are currently at various stages of their PhD’s within Horizon, and all of whom have different academic and professional backgrounds. We came together as a group because we recognised that each of us had a strong link with identity, space and place within our work, and were keen on exploring how these concepts both shape, and are shaped by, a wealth of different influences. For instance, Harriet comes from a background in human geography, and explores situated identities in both virtual and physical worlds, and Velvet is interested in human-centred, holistic ways of being with each other as a way of caring for yourself—being explicitly and implicitly connected. Together, we were able to provide a broad basis of theoretical and practical knowledge about identity, space and place, in order to facilitate valuable discussions around the importance of these topics, and their impact on research practices and outcomes.

We split the day into three core sections, each to address a different aspect of ISP. The first part of the day was spent simply getting to grips with these ambiguous and diverse concepts, sharing each other’s understandings and reflecting on our own assumptions. In our first activity, we set everyone free to spend a few minutes running around Jubilee campus, and finding examples of identity, space, and place; sending photos back to us so we could then discuss what everyone had chosen and why. This was a fantastic exercise, because all the photos taken were unique and showed completely different interpretations of not just definitions of identity, space, and place, but also different interpretations of the spaces they interacted with.

📷 Jennifer Agwunobi

The second part of the day was designed to encourage reflection on how ISP affects daily life, and daily routines. We asked each delegate to draw a map of a route they take regularly or had recently taken, and then talked through what each person had created. Each map was highly individualised, in terms of what was represented, how those things were represented, and how the delegates showed their own personalities on their maps. This activity demonstrated not only how ISP impacts every single person on a mundane level, but it also allowed us to begin discussions on how technology shapes and is shaped by ISP at a day-to-day level.

📷 Jennifer Agwunobi

The third part of the day continued to draw on themes of technology in ISP and got everyone thinking about how ISP related technology might be shaping their research, and how technology could be used to capture and explore ISP more overtly. In this section we got everyone to play free games related to ISP in some way and talk through which elements from our earlier discussions were apparent in the games, and which were more hidden. This allowed for some great exploration of how virtual and digital space, place and identity can be experienced, accessed and represented.

The last bit of our write-up contains personal reflections from each of us individually, showcased in a conversational presentation (if you feel like it, please read it out loud in two silly voices!).

Velvet: We ran the workshop not only to get researchers thinking about these complex themes and how they shape and are shaped by our research, but also as a part-experimental pilot and part sense-making activity: It was designed to feel the space out — literally and figuratively — to see if there was potential for a collective way of working and being with each other. Happily, the workshop was a success, and it seems that long term connections were made which will be fostered as a mechanism to continue these crucial discussions and share knowledge between participants.

Harriet: The multitude of voices we were lucky enough to bring together for the workshop, ranging from computer scientists, to engineers, to architects and more, contributed momentously to the positive outcomes we were able to draw from the day. It also demonstrated the value of these kind of events, where researchers with different ideas and perspectives come together, break each other out of their comfort zones, and question the assumptions that are all too easy to forget to question ourselves. It’s sometimes easy to become so involved in your own subject that you can forget the real-world applications and implications of concepts you may have come to take for granted. Hearing from those other perspectives not only re-centred us, but it also gave some fresh ideas and takes on those topics that we had almost forgotten to continue to critically examine. This was best demonstrated for me during our discussions defining space, place and identity early on in the day, when one delegate offered their definition of place as a “region in space, defined by co-ordinates”. This was so interesting, because they took their definition and applied it to cyberspace, comparing co-ordinates as used in the physical world, to URL’s used to navigate the internet. They explained that navigating websites, much like navigating physical places, requires you to narrow down your co-ordinates further and further, until you reach a point where you are capable of finding your exact destination. In the real world, this might be zooming in on your map app, or switching to a local paper map instead of a regional one. Online, this might mean navigating to the area of the website which contained the content you were interested it, by clicking through toolbars and hyperlinks. This offered a fresh perspective on navigating online spaces which I had never consciously considered before and has contributed to my own understanding of cyberspace.

Velvet: But apart from these overarching understandings and fresh impulses, running the workshop also generated insights for own personal research.

Harriet: A big part of my own research centres around trying to understand identities of individuals as situated, fluid constructs which are performed as part of social, cultural and political contexts. Part of the value of this workshop for me came in the form of being able to see those different identities demonstrated, not only in the context of students studying all over the UK taking part in a workshop at the University of Nottingham, but also in the ways that those different identities were reflected on during the activities and within the discussions. During the mapping activity for example, we were shown what priorities and performed identities the workshop participants had as part of their daily routine, be that in the form of their favourite shop, their place of worship, their favourite places to study, and so on. No two maps were drawn in the same way, even if they shared certain places or themes, demonstrating the breadth of experiences and the impact of our own identities on the landscape.

Velvet: On a very individual level, this workshop also showed me how people approach similar topics in very different, multifaceted ways. For my own PhD work, this means that I now feel even stronger about bringing people from different areas together and to create a safe, inclusive and open space together, so that synergies and a mingling of ideas can happen. When we first discussed doing this workshop, we were worried – perhaps even slightly apprehensive – about the experimental and open nature we wanted to implement. Most workshops we have attended in research or academic settings tend to be very directed, expert-led and focused on clearly defined goals or outcomes. In most of these workshops, we also bring ourselves in as a researcher or expert – a very different version of ourselves than in private. In a way, our workshop asked for a researcher perspective, but also a very private and personal one. Bringing an authentic version of yourself into an unknown space is difficult and a slightly scary undertaking – especially if you feel strongly about the concepts that are being discussed. Space, place and identity can become very personal very soon, especially since they are ideas and factors that everybody has experienced. Bringing lived experienced into a group requires a collective understanding of what it means to open up and how to approach it respectfully, without letting ideas go unchallenged. Now, having conducted this workshop, I am excited about exploring a variety of facilitation, openness and outlines with space/place/identity and in my own studies – especially how to do the whole process justice.

Harriet: In conclusion, hosting this workshop as part of a series of Digital Economy Network summer school activities was a fantastic opportunity to share and develop expertise and ideas, with a host of others who all brought their own invaluable perspectives to the workshop. On a personal note, it was also a much-appreciated plunge into facilitation and public speaking, in a way where I was able to practice those valuable skills, in a space with other researchers at similar points in their academic journey, whilst also facilitating and encouraging them to do the same.

Velvet: After a personal reflection and getting feedback, we aim to turn “Space/Place/identity” into a series of activities, with other workshops and get-togethers to exchange knowledge, but also to hold space for each other to be. How that’s going to look like in future? We are not entirely sure yet, but this workshop has laid out the groundwork for sure. We aim to facilitate it in an unconventional, experimental way that allows for a non-hierarchal way of organising ourselves. Maybe we are going back to web rings, individual HTML webpages – maybe we are going to use peer-seeded automated networks. Whatever shape it might take, we are excited to work on it collectively!

Finally, we want to shout out to Felicia Black and Monica Cano, whose patience and perseverance made this workshop not only possible, but a success. Thank you, Felicia and Monica!

Programming in Unity at the DEN Summer School

Post by Joe Strickland (2017 Cohort)

Back in the summer of 2018 I attended the DEN summer school in Bournemouth. One of the big draws of the summer school for me was the programming in Unity course that was being offered. Having come from a psychology background, I had no programming knowledge but it was becoming clearer and clearer that this was going to be something that held me back during my PhD, especially when it came to prototyping ideas for experiences. The course itself was pretty good, we ran through several different elements of using Unity including the basics of building scenes, game object physics, and exporting our scene onto a smartphone and viewing it with a cardboard header as a VR experience. We also started using Vuforia and making basic AR content. This workshop gave me a good basic understanding of Unity, but more importantly, it showed that what I wanted to learn and eventually make was well within my grasp. This was very important for motivating me to carry on learning how to build Unity experiences, as well as code in general.

Once the summer was over, my supervisors and I sat down and started discussing short-term goals to get me learning everything I’d need to learn in order to build interactive AR experiences myself. The first of these goals was to learn Python and C# in order to understand the logic of coding and be able to write my own Unity scripts to control different elements of the software. My supervisor ran me through all the basics in Unity that I might need for the specific things I was going to make, a welcome refresher after the summer school course, and I was sent off to learn my languages. Personally, I found Python quite easy to learn. The logic of the language made sense to me and the online resource I had been recommended taught it in a very hands on a practical way, with many small assignments to try out new coding knowledge and to keep old knowledge fresh and reinforced in your memory. Also, the course was broken up into bite size chunks and I found doing a lesson a day over the course of a month a very productive way of learning this language.

C# scripting was a little harder for me to grasp. I don’t know whether it was the difference between it and Python throwing me off or knowing that having to learn this was going to be more important for my PhD, but it took a lot more to try and figure out what I was doing with it. Learning this was done through some of the Unity provided tutorials, as well as other user generated tutorials on YouTube. I was also learning how to use Unity to specifically make the first short term goal project I had been assigned; making videos plays in Unity. The Unity video player isn’t completely user friendly and it took a lot of trial and error and searching Unity message boards and community sites to find out how to get it to work in the way I wanted it to. Having got it to work I moved on to controlling it a bit more and building an experience where the audience can press keys to trigger the playing of different video clips. I crafted a game object for each video clip we had and had them generated and destroyed whenever we needed that video playing, depending on the input of the audience. What I ended up with was a functional interactive film about a man trying to find his heart medication, where the audience could decide whether he moved left, right, or had a heart attack at various points in the film. When I showed my supervisors they liked it but found how I had made the film incredibly inefficient, so they tasked me with remaking it so that different videos played on the same game object and not on different ones. This next step proved challenging but eventually I managed to write a functioning Unity script which changed the state of the game object and, once a game object was of a certain state, it would play different videos with different audience responses. It would then change its stage again to allow the experience to progress. This experience pleased my supervisors, but they didn’t like how making decisions at the wrong times messed the game up, so I had to add delays into the script that stopped audiences making decisions at the wrong points in the experience. Fortunately, this wasn’t to difficult to do, although trying to use time as a function while coding with the video player in mind did prove confusing.

I was also asked to build a restaurant scene and fill it with moving virtual characters, but this was very similar to the summer school exercises and the Unity developer tutorials so this didn’t prove too tricky. Characters were downloaded from Adobe Maximo, so came with animation cycles attached and a few YouTube tutorials later I had people looking around and being furious at virtual restaurant tables.

Finally, I was asked to build an AR tester experience. I had to place a virtual character, like those from the restaurant scene, into a real world environment and have them occluded by a real world object, specifically sitting behind and hidden by a real world table. This is something that is surprisingly hard to find official Unity information for. There is lots of help for tracking markers and placing AR content in the real world but not so much for having that content blocked by real objects. I eventually found a YouTube tutorial which addressed a similar problem in a way which allowed me to figure out how to solve my own. They showed how there was a depth occluder material that you could use to create invisible game objects that would block the audience’s vision of the virtual content. Creating a cube the size of a table top and placing it over the lap of my sitting virtual character, then using a placemat as a tracking marker in the real world to position the avatar behind a real table allowed the virtual character to appear as if they were sitting in the real world. The illusion was particularly impressive when the character moved and there arms would disappear and reappear below and above the line of the back of the table. See attached photo for a snapshot of the experience.

If I had any advice to any other researchers looking to get into creating XR experiences, or even just learning to code, it is there’s no time like the present to start learning. There are plenty of great resources online for free that go through everything you’ll need to know step by step, while also allowing you to navigate through lessons to learn the specific things that you need for whatever project you might be working on. Though getting an understanding of the basics is fundamental you can pick or choose what of the more specific stuff to learn to suit your needs fairly easily. Also, just like any skill, you’ll need to keep practising. Find some little challenges to work towards, like I had set out for me. There were a few times I’d not focus on coding for a few weeks and then notice that I had forgotten something I definitely knew before and had to go back over previous lessons or code that I had written to find it. Don’t fall for this like I did, keep it up at a steady pace and you’ll be writing code in no time.