For the first time in more than a year, I enter a convention hall and look awkwardly across a field of banquet tables, trying to decide which small group of strangers seems most approachable. It’s typical “first day at the convention” jitters — except that instead of the physical me, I’m a quirky avatar with frizzy brown hair and giant glasses. I’m here at the annual meeting of OrigamiUSA, an association of diehard paper-folders, and we’re meeting online from locations around the world in a virtual conference hall that looks like an expansive 8-bit video game.
Facing the same dilemma as every other large-event organizer during the pandemic era, the team behind this year’s OrigamiUSA conference chose not to postpone their meeting. Instead, they committed to holding it in a spatial metaverse — a virtual space that mimics an open-world video game like Minecraft. Though this one, hosted on a platform called Gather, feels decidedly lo-fi, some technologists have big ideas for incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality into the medium and making it the whiz-bang collective space of the future. Mark Zuckerberg recently assembled a team of Facebook executives to develop the company’s metaverse capabilities.
Granted, origami seems an especially tricky thing to try in cyberspace: it’s visual, physical, tactile. The entire field is all about turning simple, flat squares of paper into complex three-dimensional objects.
Still, origamists like to push boundaries, and a virtual conference allows organizers to broaden participation, limit expenses, reduce carbon emissions, and experiment a bit. Even before the pandemic, climate scientists were having vigorous discussions about whether conferences should go virtual, or at least hybrid. So it seems worth exploring, now more than ever: Could a virtual platform reinvent the conference, and even do it better?
The agenda for the virtual OrigamiUSA 2021 meeting is largely the same as in previous years. Following the opening ceremonies, different tracks of tutorials run from the simple (folding a six-pointed star or a two-color paper box) to more craftily creased creations (a suspension bridge, an electric guitar, a fish) to complicated mathematical shapes (a “Sonobe Unit,” a “Darwin Cyclone,” a “Mandara Haguruma cogwheel”).
Confronted with this soft sell of fake reality, I was actually more willing to suspend my disbelief.
I appear as a simple, customizable avatar in the middle of this scrolling world; when I log in, I can choose my own hair, outfit, and headgear from a vast menu. I can navigate with my mouse or the buttons on my keyboard — it’s pretty easy and low-stress. But the real magic happens when I approach other avatars: Once I’m close enough to others, embedded Zoom-like video-chat windows appear, showing an actual person at an actual keyboard somewhere (maybe Boise, maybe Beijing), allowing me talk to them in real-time. When I move away from an individual or group, these windows and conversations fade into the background, just like in real life.
I have some time to kill before the next formal session, where I’m hoping to drop in on a tutorial to fold a “complex walrus with color-changing tusks” (I’m expecting to be lost by step three). So I wander around the main floor of the virtual convention hall. As at a real conference, a registration table greets attendees. The central hall includes tables for informal chats. A shop sells T-shirts (basically, a link to a webform). A “kids’ room” is empty at the moment (but a nice gesture). An exhibition gallery opens to another website, showcasing some impressive creations: a three-headed hydra, a delicate bouquet of roses from a folder in Ukraine, a plate of paper fortune cookies with tiny fortune-slips inside, a “Hyperbolic Banana Holder.” (As I said: these folks like to push boundaries.) A banquet hall overflows with 8-bit images of food, the sorts of treats that Ms. Pac-Man might chase around for points: a bunch of grapes, a turkey leg, a pink frosted doughnut.
As can be found at many conferences and video games, there’s a “secret room” located off the map — a reward for people who poke around long enough to unlock the steps to get in. The gathering even includes an enigmatic “private” swimming pool area for “wet folding” (which I assume is a craft technique).
I stop at one table, where three little avatars have gathered: a gray-haired old lady, a boy with red shirt and baseball cap, and someone wearing a space-suit helmet? (I didn’t even see that option when I logged on.) Once I step in close, the videos come to life, and — hello! — it’s real humans again: three attendees from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the UK are discussing folding techniques while working through the early stages of a complex project. It’s a clever trick: the switch from (“fake”) avatars to (“real”) video actually makes the interaction feel more immediate, distracting me from the seemingly obvious fact that all of this is still remote and virtual.
After a few minutes I politely move on, but that’s how I tend to operate at conferences and parties: alternately butterfly and fly on the wall. Elsewhere in the hall, I drop in on a much larger group, and eight or nine individual videos pop up as a crowd assembles and the avatars cluster together. Two old friends discuss their experiences teaching origami techniques to senior citizens, while others listen and nod. An enthusiastic New Yorker attempts to start an ambitious, collective multistage folding project, but nobody’s biting. Attendees from Finland, Mexico, and the UK discuss time-zone differences with the largely East Coast and Midwest US crowd. Just like at an in-person conference, people gather in groups of two or three, float and linger at the edges, and bud off and seek other groups.
I’m starting to appreciate the ways that Gather is helping me to shed my hesitancy, making the conference feel like a real place, not just a website. The subtle playfulness of the platform helps: rather than trying to fool us with animated first-person renderings and “immersive” graphics, it’s simple, almost childlike. Confronted with this soft sell of fake reality, I was actually more willing to suspend my disbelief. (I’ve found that with movies too: I’m much more likely to feel immersed in a conventional film — even a cartoon or a black and white classic — than anything 3-D or in Imax format, which leads me to focus on the technology, not the world that I’ve entered.) This ease of entrance helps me connect with the real material of the conference: the people, the paper, and the projects. Some folks even set up a second camera to show an overhead view of their hands and folding surface, an easy way to mimic the feeling of glancing down to see the work.
A few technical difficulties crop up as I navigate this new metaverse: I can’t get the sound to work at first, so I have to leave the site and re-enter a couple times to reset it. But minor snags and problems were pretty common at in-person conferences as well, from unreliable PowerPoint connections to trouble finding the right room.
Since March 2020, our online migration has reminded us how much we depend on the physical world’s proximity, crowding, and synchronicity to foster interaction. But by adding the metaphor of virtual space, Gather and other spatial metaverses demonstrate that we can create a lot of these spontaneous interactions online, sometimes using very basic tools. The success of the experience depends on how much you are willing to create that mental space and enter it without distraction or inhibition, rather than on the quality of the effects or the software itself.
Maybe we’ll eventually become comfortable with more immersive forms of virtual socializing and contact, like those envisioned by science fiction authors, filmmakers, and now the aspiring metaverse-makers at Facebook. But it’s possible that, just as with books, radio, and film, simpler is often better. The magic of narrative and community emerges when we assemble the elements in our own brains, rather than relying on overly complicated technological whiz-bangery. Higher production values can focus your mind on the interface, instead of the human interaction.
Which is to say that hosting a virtual event is a lot like hosting one in person: Make people comfortable and let them interact. The rest takes care of itself — and even has some surprising advantages. In the virtual world, no one notices when your origami walrus comes out looking like a squished paper hat.