3 August 2021

Online Immersive Technologies and Virtual Worlds for Astronomy Outreach

Alexander Kaurov Institute for Advanced Study

Alexander Stone-Martinez
New Mexico State University

STEM XR: Outreach in Virtual Worlds Workshop

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, which attracted 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 science communicator engages the audience by telling a story using narration, visuals, and other means; and thus many techniques of capturing and directing attention can be borrowed 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.

We have observed the fast-changing landscape of online immersive entertainment over the past year 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 the virtual reality (VR) social network platform VRChat. Now it is time to transfer the knowledge and experience from other industries to astronomy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) outreach. Thus, we decided to organize a workshop and are honored to be supported by the AAS-EPD Mini-Grant program.

The workshop will consist of two parts:

  1. A series of prerecorded 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. An interactive experience that aims to bring together people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, arrange them in groups of 5-7 with complementary skill sets, 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 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 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 because of 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 17 September

Register for the Workshop

On 1 October at 6:00 pm ET we will hold our two-hour kick-off meeting for those who decide to take part in the second part of the workshop.