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03.30.21 – The Daniels Building has a virtual doppelgänger, and students are attending classes there

The Daniels Building has been closed for the duration of Ontario's long COVID-19 lockdown, but students can still spend time in One Spadina's social spaces and studios — albeit virtually.

That's because Lily Jeon, a studio technologist at Daniels, has created an online replica of the Daniels Building, where students can walk around, study, and socialize as though they were actually on campus.

The project arose out of frustration with the drawbacks of online learning. "Faculty members and I wanted to respond to feedback received from students about the shared frustrations and difficulties of having casual conversations with one another online," Jeon says. "It’s hard for people to call each other out of the blue. It's much easier for them to have conversations when they're given opportunities to bump into each other naturally."

But the virtual building has now grown into much more than a casual hangout. Professors have begun to hold critiques there, and student clubs have started using it for events. A few faculty members have even begun using the space to hold office hours.

The virtual Daniels Building exists on Gather, an online collaboration platform. Gather is different than other collaboration platforms, like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, in that it actually tries to replicate the experience of being inside a physical space with other people. It does this by borrowing some of the design language of 1990s-era two-dimensional video games, in which player-characters wander brightly coloured worlds rendered in a top-down perspective. It's a fun, accessible aesthetic, instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent too much time playing Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda.

In Gather, each participant in a meeting appears as a pixel-art avatar inside a two-dimensional environment. Participants can travel freely around the virtual space. When two or more avatars approach each other, they have the option of opening a video chat together. The experience is similar to wandering through a party or a crowded lecture hall, noticing colleagues and spontaneously being pulled into conversation with them.

Gather provides some generic rooms for avatars to move around, but Jeon wanted to make the virtual space feel a little more Daniels-specific. So she got out her iPad and spent hours illustrating detailed environments that accurately replicate, in cartoon style, different parts of the Daniels Building. She and her work-study students, Gemma Robinson and Zainab Wakil, worked to refine the different areas to make them suitable for various kinds of programming.

Here's the student commons, where the Architecture and Visual Studies Student Union recently hosted a "coffee with profs" event, in which professors sat at tables in the virtual space and chatted with students:

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Here's the graduate studio's amphitheatre, where assistant professor Erica Allen-Kim has lately been holding Writing Centre office hours:

Here's the undergraduate studio:

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And the main hall, where the Daniels undergraduate mentorship program recently held a trivia night:

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Several undergraduate studio professors have begun using the virtual Daniels Building on Gather to host critiques, including Dina Sarhane (ARC362), Tom Bessai (ARC381), and Jay Pooley (JAV101). They say the virtual environment allows for easier, more natural collaboration than Zoom.

"It's particularly great for students who have never been to the building, because it gives them a peek at what they have to look forward to," Pooley says. "It works well for studios, because students are able to easily break out into small groups within the class, and they can meet with their teaching assistants at a separate table. I've had people stop by my class, which is really great. It has been fun. We enjoy it."

Jen Wan, a fourth-year undergraduate at Daniels, has attended social events in the virtual Daniels Building as part of her involvement with Applied Architecture, Landscape, and Design, a student group. "I like Gather because it's really fun," she says. "When you're meeting with people in Zoom, it's hard because you have to work to orchestrate activities and games. On Gather, they're all right there for you."

The virtual Daniels Building isn't just for special events and studios. It's available on Gather 24 hours a day, and Daniels Faculty students and instructors are encouraged to use it casually, for informal hangouts and games. To join, use the link below:

Sign up for the virtual Daniels Building