This Fall quarter, the Stanford Design School created a class called Reimagining Campus Life for Today’s World. It asked students to tackle a central question:
If we can’t all be on campus at the same time, how can we design for casual interaction, serendipity, human connection, and lifelong friends and contacts?
I spoke with classmates and team members Elijah and Hannah about their final project, an interactive space for video calling using the ohyay platform. You can check out Elijah, Hannah, and Maxwell’s project here (where our interview took place!) and the ohyay studio website here.
The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I’d love to start out with some quick introductions. What year are you at Stanford, and why did you decide to take Reimaging Campus Life last quarter?
HJ: My name is Hannah Joy, and I staff at the d.school. My reasoning for taking this class was because my title is community manager, and I work a lot with the student community in person, and I’ve been working to engage with them virtually as well. One day at a meeting, the teaching and learning team who runs our classes said wow, does anyone want to take this class? And I said, yeah! I would love to see what the student experience is like taking a d.school class virtually, and this topic is something that I’m working on and interested in.
EE: I’m Elijah Ezralow. I am a freshman at Stanford, so I just completed my first quarter. The reason that I took the class: I wanted to take a gap year, and I wasn’t able to. I decided that I wanted to use this time in my first quarter to really take classes that interested me. The time right now, it just felt like why follow any rules? Just do whatever you want and see where it leads you. On top of that, I tried some of those big lectures, and over zoom it was really difficult to focus and pay attention and be held accountable. This class opened–in a basic way, just a small class where I can connect with people, but also a way that we can self reflect on what we’re going through right now and self-actualize our experience by creating spaces that do foster connection and new ways of interacting. That’s why the class excited me.
How did you come up with the idea to use ohyay, and what were you trying to achieve with it?
EE: Ohyay was a really amazing platform. It was our canvas: it gave us the space to paint. Zoom and a lot of other platforms felt very limiting. All the rooms you are seeing here you can interact and play with. Others you can move around in, and that gave us a lot of tools that we could use. Having those tools, we set out to use a lot of the things we had talked about throughout the quarter. What were some of the things? There were so many!
HJ: Learning and doing together virtually: how can we do that rather than just sitting and listening. We got a lot of examples and experience with different ways of communicating with strangers: we were sending each other video messages and audio messages, things that now I do a lot more with my more intimate friends, but before I wasn’t doing with any friends. One thing that I think led us to pursue using this platform that already existed rather than zoom was the two interviews that we did with masters students. They both expressed that “I want to engage, but I have social anxiety. I show up and I don’t know–am I going to have to carry the conversation? Who’s going to carry the conversation? What’s going to happen when I get there?” The most successful interactions were the ones where they were playing a game, everyone was just as engaged. Basically, they would know that they didn’t need to carry the conversation. And so when we were designing these rooms: we have this one which is just a stare at the camera and talk room, but it’s nice that I’m not so big; it’s nice that there are other things about it that are different than Zoom. But all of the other rooms are interactive: they’re all meant to get you
to not feel the pressure to have to say something. You don’t have to feel like you have to carry the conversation, and you have the freedom to move yourself around. So if you were in here and you’re like “oh this isn’t really speaking to me” or Elijah is really hitting it off with Alana, but I don’t have anything else to say, I’m gonna go somewhere else–rather than just sit here and put myself on mute or turn my camera off and just look at my phone.
EE: I just remember one of the first things that we thought about at the beginning of making these rooms was that we wanted to go with the playful route and creating–we’re almost thinking like a virtual party. And so what that meant is, what does a party or really any kind of playful gathering have? It’s distractions and it’s an environment, and I think one of the biggest things that we ended up focusing on throughout all the rooms was harnessing or leveraging distraction to create some sort of attraction to the people in the room and conversation. While we’re moving around these tiles, we can kind of be having a more passive conversation that relaxes the brain in a weird way. One thing that Maxwell brought up in our brainstorm sessions was that we are also creating a space that anybody can join in at any time, and pick off the train of thought. It feels very ominous in zoom calls. There’s the waiting room, and it’s black, and then you walk in and then there’s like 20 people or maybe there’s three people or maybe there’s one person that’s incredibly awkward. Here you walk in and it’s like, oh, well, I can make myself busy with magnet tiles and moving these things around, and I’m not like staring at you in a black void.
HJ: I think another thing that is exciting about this platform, that the team who made it did, was make it customizable. Once Elijah got creation rights–we kept calling him God. He’s able to move us around and create rooms. Once he got the God powers, we were able to customize this. Actually, this image in the background is a d.school project. The lavatory is actually the women’s restroom downstairs at the d.school. The whiteboard is really at the d.school, and the d.school entry is the furniture we have in our classrooms. The replicability of it is… do this space with the magnet tiles, but change the background to fit your community. That’s exciting that it’s not always the same old thing. When you go to the d.school, you might be able to say hey, I saw that in the virtual space or if you’re in the laboratory in here and then when you go back to the d.school you can say oh, that’s the laboratory. Or if you’ve already been to the d.school you can and you use this restroom, then you can say oh this is the d.school. Not that we need to recreate everything in person, but being able to draw some parallels is really nice.
If Stanford or Stanford students adopt this platform, do you envision it being classroom-based or more social or for everything?
EE: I think it could do a lot of things. I think that there’s a real strength in the social aspect. Zoom serves its purpose for business calls and all that–it’s a medium that works for that. I’m going to host a couple holiday parties here! In terms of classrooms, there was a computer science class last quarter where all the office hours were held in an ohyay setting. There’s definitely a place to expand this in a social setting and an education setting as well.
Do you see a role for this beyond the pandemic? This depends on whether virtual connection will become a part of our life after things go back to normal, but specifically for ohyay, do you see it integrating into normal classrooms or normal social life?
EE: I do think that now that people can work from home and do remote work it’s going to be kind of a competitive advantage that companies have if they do that. I think this does have potential after the pandemic. Hannah, you threw out this idea, what if we created ohyay rooms in real life? What if you walked into a real room and your ohyay stuff walked in with you. A mixed reality between the two.
HJ: Now that we know the potential of learning online, what could it look like in the next phase? What happens when you have 10 people in person and a few people virtual–how do you integrate the two of those? Maybe there’s potential. What if the students’ images were sitting within the classroom: the teacher takes a picture of everyone in the classroom and puts it up on ohyay, and it feels like you’re actually sitting amongst your classmates. That’s kind of a virtual reality spin. That is serving the virtual students. I don’t know if we need to create the in person experience all the time. Personally, I would like to do a lot less video calling. I stare at myself the whole time!
EE: In the auditorium room what you can do is put yourself in the way back, make yourself really small. It creates this spatial hierarchy or architecture or a real space. Your perspective changes as you move around.
I was listening the other day to Allen Watts speaking about the symbolic and the real and talking about environments. Humans don’t exist without an environment. We have a perception that we’re existing only within our skin and have no identity outside of that. But the truth is, we are a part of the world and our environment shapes us. You can get very meta. But, on a video call, such as Zoom or Google Hangout, you put yourself in a box. It is kind of saying that you don’t exist within an environment. You have a background, but it is pretty much your face. It feels like creating that environment is really important and it somehow relaxes the mind to see someone in an environment. There’s a human nature connection that is a part of life–it’s a part of life that we are part of our environment. When we lose that, it creates a real uncomfortability that we don’t understand, such as on Zoom.
Is there anything else you want to share about the project or the class in general?
HJ: I want to tell you what our point of view statement was. In design, we teach that you do in depth interviews, maybe 5-8 interviews for a project like this, and you look at the overarching themes. You give it a name, some characteristics, and what their need is. We can keep going back to that point of view to have a lens. The point of view we chose from the interviews was “Jenny, a 2nd year STEM PhD student needs a way to meet new people without having it feel like work. What’s interesting, is that she has social anxiety.”
The two people we were mostly drawing from were very open about that: they said I get really anxious; this has been really different for me; I mostly have been able to get used to what in person is like, but this is a whole new can of worms. So, we could make sure, are we letting Jenny make new friends? Does it feel like work when she shows up? That was something that was interesting. It is also interesting to think about… we should be honest; we didn’t have a lot of success with students showing up. When students do show up, they have a positive experience.
EE: I had a freshman show up the other day, and we had a follow up call and we’re making a good friendship.
HJ: That’s so sweet! But what’s the right way to introduce people to ohyay? So we tried in the second invite we sent out we included screenshots, because it’s something entirely new. If someone has social anxiety, they might want to know that they’re not just going to pop in and be the big face on everybody’s screen. We want to show them: this is what it is going to look like. Does that help someone with social anxiety? I don’t know, but we were trying to play around with the invite.
EE: It’s tricky; we get so many emails now. Sifting through them and then all the links and then all the–it’s so unappealing. How do you show someone that this isn’t zoom–it’s something new–and then persuade them to come?
HJ: Another bump in the road was what time do you do virtual events? When everyone is virtual and all across the world, we have a lot of times we are working with. Do we invite people to their lunch, dinner, breakfast? We tried a morning time and a 5pm time to get the extremes.
EE: It feels like we need some sort of aggregated Stanford calendar!
HJ: When we are in person, we have the incentive of food we can provide. For virtual, one option is to send everyone a gift card, but there’s got to be something other than cash money that would make people come to a virtual event, so what is that?
EE: One thought we had was to get a pop celebrity! Give us another couple months :).
HJ: Yeah, I think the idea of virtual incentives is really interesting. Do people really want to make friends right now? I don’t know. If that’s not an incentive… people don’t really want to network right now.
EE: If we had done this with just a freshman class, rather than d.school students who range from graduate level to junior or senior, we would have had a greater turnout because friending right now is a really big part of the experience. I want to try to do something like this for the freshman class.
One last question: what has your life in quarantine been like?
EE: It’s been a process. I feel that I have been able to capitalize on the silver lining of this and maintain my positive view. It’s difficult for so many reasons, but the way I have been thinking about it–and I’m in an interesting stage because I’m on a highschool to college, big transition in my life, I was getting ready to leave the house, and I couldn’t imagine this a year ago, and now I have to embrace it. I couldn’t have imagined that a year ago. I’m very fortunate to be at Stanford and have the opportunities that I have, but at the same time it’s been about trying to keep that mindset to seize this as an opportunity for my personal self care and growth. I’ve wanted it to be a time–and there have been ups and downs–that I can really reflect on the last couple years of my life, and be like where am I going now with my life when things return to normal. I want to use this time to really get to know myself.
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Many thanks to Glenn Fajardo, Elijah Ezralow, and Hannah Joy for making this piece possible.