Gather is a remarkable retro but modern collaboration, cooperation, and socialization system: I really like it.

The other day a small group of students and I had a really interesting experimental classroom session in Gather. The article linked here describes a much bigger-scale and intentional approach.

If you’re not familiar with Gather, its a web-based real-time social environment. Its deceptively simple (to the point of silliness) 8-bit interface provides a 2D top-down view of a virtual space that very closely resembles that of a 1980s video game – in fact, it’s even simpler than the seminal multi-player Habitat, that came out in 1985, inasmuch as it is only top-down. You could think of it as much simpler and flatter but vaguely in a similar vein to Minecraft or Habbo, but it’s easier to create new spaces (people have replicated whole buildings, islands, and villages, in 2D 8-bit form – there are even pubs and bars). Your cartoon-ish avatar can be moved around with really simple cursor-driven movements, though more complex interactions with objects require you to press the X key, and/or to make selections from menus or move things with your mouse. Spaces can be any size, you can create them and objects within them (including in the free version), and there are mapping tools to help you find people and places.

So far so not very interesting: been there and done that.

Immediately under the surface, however, is a full-fledged, very modern web-conferencing system with a wide range of options to share audio, webcams, documents, videos, images, whiteboards, screens, chat, calendars, and so on, which is (almost) infinitely extendable through embedding of any website. Objects left in the space can be persistent, so it’s not just about real-time meetings. You can send and leave messages, videos, voice recordings, and more. There’s a lot more to it that I’ve yet to explore, but I’ve not found anything I could do in almost any collaboration system that I could not do here. Functionally, it is not dissimilar to MS Teams, but there the similarity ends: this is way better in almost every way.

A group in Gather (not my students!)

Though it looks like an ancient video game, the interface is actually extremely smart, because instead of interacting with a fixed, typically hierarchical, abstract set of documents and containers, it gives you an intuitive spatial view on everything, and the space is very easy to create, incredibly flexible, and visually well differentiated (not perfect for people with visual disabilities, but they are catered for).  You can enter a private space with others if you wish, a bit like breakout rooms in conventional webmeeting systems except that it is easy for anyone to (literally) wander between them, to see who is inside (if enabled) and for the moderator of the space to be seen and heard by everyone, wherever they are. By default, outside a private space you can generally only hear and see someone if your avatar is near to theirs, so you could have hundreds of people in a space but only chat with those around you, much like a physical social gathering. As you move away the voice and the webcam video of those no longer proximal to you start to fade until they disappear altogether, while others you approach fade into view. Digital objects (e.g. files, presentations, videos, websites, etc) can be placed anywhere, in arbitrary but potentially meaningful spatial relationships with one another, and visitors can work on them or view them together.

The sense of social presence is very palpable in a way that far exceeds conventional webmeeting tools – it’s incredibly effective, without being intrusive, difficult, or demanding explicit interaction. No uncomfortable silences or artificial instrumental activities here, and you get to do things together, not just stare at one another’s faces or watch a document. In this space you could have a private office that people can ‘see’ you inside, but have to knock to come in and chat (without being heard by others). They can see if you are interacting with others (who can be anonymous shadows) and are therefore busy, or they can join in the conversation – they cannot overhear anything without you knowing they are there, much like in meatspace. You could ‘lock’ the room if you don’t want to be disturbed at all. You could leave your office to visit a common room, or classroom, or conference, or whatever. You could just stop by someone else’s office to chat, or they could leave messages and so on for you.

And, of course, you could use if for teaching, which is exactly what this linked article describes. It provides a really good in-depth description of how the author is using Gather to manage a very large introductory computing class, that goes into plenty of detail about how Gather works and what you can do there. The uses involve nothing more than plain vanilla options that take a few minutes to configure – a lot more is possible – but it’s easy to see how incredibly effectively it marries the digital environment and our evolved ability to navigate physical spaces, without trying to exactly mimic the real world beyond what is absolutely necessary to get around.

This seems like a vastly superior approach to communication than that of nearly all shared-reality VR, that mostly just replicates all the constraints and annoyances of the physical world or, when it doesn’t, feels jarring and wrong, not to mention almost always involving a steep learning curve and requiring a mighty machine to run it well (or, worse, separating you from your actual physical world with annoying goggles and headsets). Such a waste of computing power for no good reason. It’s not that shared-reality VR doesn’t have some compelling use cases – it does. It’s just deeply hopeless as a general-purpose social environment.

Though not quite as infinitely flexible as Minecraft or an old-fashioned MOO (that it resembles, albeit highly evolved from there) – at least in what I’ve seen so far – it’s much easier to get started and much easier to get around, plus it’s a fully featured synchronous web conferencing system. There’s copious and comprehensive help at https://support.gather.town/help. I contacted the company for an educational discount and thereby got involved with their tech support team (because I found a bug/feature that wouldn’t let me pay, not that it was needed for this small number of students), and I found them very responsive, friendly, and personally interested.

Gather is also vastly superior to the abstract, alienating, function-driven approaches of most ‘grid of faces’ webmeeting software like Teams, Zoom, or Webex, albeit that it shares with them the annoying need to visit a separate virtual space (a website), rather than integrating that space in the rest of your own environment. However, the only significant exception to that failing that I’m aware of is the very excellently designed Around, though even that has to become more of an isolated space (albeit with a cute campfire to sit around) if you are meeting many people, and it is nothing like as flexible or powerful as Gather – it’s just a meeting system.

Back in the early 2000s I tried to build a much simpler toy system along quite similar lines, called Dwellings. I used a metaphor of streets and buildings (my inspiration was Jane Jacobs’s ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ – I tried to enable support for the kinds of things driving successful city areas), as well as a bunch of stigmergic cues to help with social navigation and some ideas drawn from MOOs. These were pre-HTML5 days and, though AJAX had recently been invented, I’d not discovered it, so it really didn’t work at all well: I had to invent some really bad and ugly ways to do synchronous stuff. I only got as far as providing clunky text chat, the interface was dire, it only supported sharing of web sites (and graffiti about them) and it was a truly awfully designed and implemented system that ground to a halt under the strain of more than about half a dozen simultaneous users. If you really want to suffer, a version from about 15 years ago is actually still online though I guess I should get round to removing it at some point as it couldn’t be much flakier. There were a few papers about it (e.g. this one, sadly paywalled by AACE but available via most university library accounts).  Gather is orders of magnitude better, far more fully thought through and, above all, it actually works, really well, with a very full range of modern, effective features. I don’t like that it’s a cloud-only service that starts to get expensive for more than a few dozen people, I don’t like that it’s not open source, and I am not sure that some of my more staid colleagues would take it seriously: it really does look a lot like an old-fashioned game. But it is a really cool place to collaborate, cooperate, and socialize, in a fabulously retro but very modern way.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/10868769/gather-is-a-remarkable-retro-but-modern-collaboration-cooperation-and-socialization-system-i-really-like-it

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the former Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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