Editorial: Virtual Space

An increasing number of virtual tools are engaging with simulacra of physical space

Editor Elsa Lam and her former architecture school classmates met for a virtual class reunion on Gather Town this spring.

Over the past year, many of us have been working almost exclusively from home, collaborating remotely with colleagues. After work, much of our socializing has been through screens, too. The novelty of this wore off long ago: even my three-year-old is sick of video calls.

Organizational behaviour researcher Andre Spicer, of the University of London, notes that Zoom fatigue has a neuroscientific basis. “When we interact with another person through the screen, our brains have to work much harder,” he writes. “We miss many of the other cues we’d have during a real-life conversation, like the smell of the room or some detail in our peripheral vision.”

The compression of online space also contributes to the exhaustion. Ricocheting between a dozen meetings a day can produce a sense of whiplash. At an online conference I attended, one feature was a virtual networking space, which promised to pair attendees for two-minute conversations. I’m an extrovert who loves networking in real-life, but I recoiled from the prospect of being instantly paired with a stranger.

In real life, physical space helps us negotiate these interactions. At our offices, we walk between meeting rooms, stopping for a coffee en route. We suss out a conference crowd before deciding who we want to introduce ourselves to.

In a bid to recreate this feeling, an increasing number of virtual tools are engaging with physical space—or more accurately, a simulacrum of physical space. Virtual event platforms include landing pages that look like high-end conference centre atriums, or the lobby of a resort hotel. Workshops can be held in virtual training rooms, complete with a choice of seats around tables. On a more subtle level, digital whiteboard and pin-up tools can be a satisfying change from slide presentations, because they allow for interaction and situate information spatially.

My architecture class staged a reunion through Gather Town last month—a platform whose interface looks like an 80s video game crossed with Zoom. One of my classmates recreated the floorplan of the University of Waterloo architecture school for the event. We walked our 8-bit avatars around, chatting with friends in our studio pods and in the lobby. The former school director made a surprise guest appearance. At the end, everyone spontaneously assembled in the auditorium, parking our pixelated figures over chairs, and took turns ad-hoc-ing speeches from the podium.

It felt, strangely, like going to a real party. It even went too late: the reunion was scheduled to end at 9 pm. Most of us logged off at midnight. It was the most fun I’d had in a while.

But how much of that fun was because of the people, rather than the interface? Do many of these online spaces amount to digital gimmickry? “The number of virtual event platforms is mind-numbing,” says virtual and hybrid event consultant Arti Kaushal of Big Bang Beige. “In the end, to plan a successful virtual event, you need to focus on creating great content and an engaging experience—the platform doesn’t matter.” She notes that her team has delivered successful meetings using nothing more than Zoom—a tool that offers the distinct advantage of familiarity. (“Everyone has a year of experience using it, so there’s no learning curve.”)

We also think back to in-person encounters with a certain nostalgia, which elides the fact that physical presence doesn’t guarantee engagement. How many conferences were full of people looking at their phones, rather than at the speakers? How about classrooms, where students commonly surf the web, half-listening to a lecture?

To re-energize both our in-person and virtual interactions, we need to bring a design lens to the way we run meetings, classes and events. Human encounters need a clear common purpose, relevant content—and above all, authentic engagement. Snazzy digital and phys­ical surroundings can support this. But ultimately, the magic isn’t in the platform: it’s in the people, and in the quality of their presence.

View the article as it appeared in our June 2021 issue: