By Shriya Roy
On August 23, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, held its 58th convocation. But it was no ordinary convocation. To make up for the lack of a physical ceremony, the convocation was held in VR (virtual reality) mode. Students and staff members attended the event in their VR avatars from the comfort of their homes. The personalised avatar of each student accepted the degree certificate and medal from the personalised avatar of IIT-Bombay director Subhasis Chaudhuri. According to the institution, it wanted to provide students the same experience as an in-person event despite the restrictions posed by the pandemic. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about the unique ceremony, calling it a “wonderful mix of tradition and technology”.
With universities closed and classes having moved online, graduating students have had a tough time this year. Starting from their examinations to the much awaited convocation which every student looks forward to, all has been lost in a whirlwind. Some universities have moved to Zoom convocation sessions, but it can’t match up to the euphoria of a physical convocation. In such a scenario, IIT-Bombay’s VR convocation is a welcome move.
In virtual reality, the computer-generated simulation of a 3D image or surrounding can interact in a seemingly real or physical way. The VR used by IIT-Bombay enables multi-projected environments that create realistic images, sounds and other scenes, mimicking a user’s physical attendance in a particular virtual setting. IIT-Bombay not only helped connect batchmates virtually, it also provided them a tour of the hostel and campus. A link was sent to them, helping them access the campus map. They could then visit their respective departments, as well as walk through the campus corridors virtually in their avatars. But it wasn’t an easy task. A team of 20 organisers worked tirelessly for over two months to make the event, which saw over 2,000 students participating, a grand success.
“Providing a virtual reality experience to all our graduates needed not only highly innovative steps, but also tremendous effort by our professors and staff. Hopefully, this will enthuse our graduates, as well as other engineers in the country to think big and innovatively,” said Chaudhuri.
The most significant advantage of VR technology is that users can interact with 3D models that respond based on real-world instances. Not just IIT-Bombay, the pandemic has forced many universities across the world to think out of the box to make virtual graduation ceremonies interesting and fun for students. Think robots, simulation and all sorts of tech tools. Take, for instance, Business Breakthrough University in Tokyo. Using “Newme” mobile robots with a tablet to host a Zoom call, graduates had the experience of walking across the stage and accepting their diplomas virtually in March. Then students at the University of Pennsylvania recreated their entire campus in the online video game Minecraft. Developed by Swedish company Mojang, the game encourages players to explore a block-based world that allows them to mine resources and build new structures.
Their move inspired more than 20 schools and universities around the world to rebuild their campuses in Minecraft. Some universities used the Minecraft server to host graduation ceremonies as well for students. University of California’s student-run project Blockeley, for one, created a replica of the Berkeley campus, a virtual college graduation and a music festival all within Minecraft. The in-game graduation ceremony was even attended by chancellor Carol Christ and vice-chancellor Marc Fisher.
Students at Grand Canyon University in Arizona, on the other hand, celebrated their big day with a virtual ceremony on popular video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The students ‘met’ virtually through their avatars and bid each other farewell.
Not just graduation and convocation ceremonies, virtual simulated college tours have also become quite popular now. Universities around the world are offering 360-degree virtual tours for students to experience the campus. Texas Southern University, University of Houston, is using a platform called YouVist, which offers a 360-degree VR experience of a college. These virtual visits have reportedly turned out to be more efficient than regular Zoom tours.