Being a teacher is rough. Being a teacher trying to teach a class of more than 20 students virtually in the middle of a pandemic is even rougher. Not only do you have to come up with clever ways to teach the same material and keep your class engaged, but you often find yourself troubleshooting your students’ tech issues at the same time. Not gonna lie, Zoom, while easy to use, isn’t exactly the most fluid nor exciting tool for recreating the classroom environment over the internet. It’s not fun. And learning should be fun.
Bramble is everything Zoom is not. It’s a video-conferencing service that lets you control flat, MMO-like avatars in themed environments, which mimic the experience of socialising in a physical space. The best part about it is that it requires almost no technical skills to use — and students will probably love it.
Bramble wasn’t originally created for a classroom environment, but rather as a virtual performance environment for artist and musicians to share anything creative in a social space.
“Bramble was originally built for our performance community,” co-founder Vladic Ravich tells me as we roam around a virtual lobby with a red carpet, couches, and tables.
To the right of the screen, Bramble captures our faces using our webcams. To the left are our avatars, which we can change with a single click. One moment I’m a neon-coloured bird. The next, I’m a cyclops jellyfish.
Artery, the performance community Ravich tells me about, was created to help facilitate intimate performances in real life. But that suddenly became impossible thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. Standard video conferencing platforms like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom were a good solution for businesses, but not necessarily for creative communities. So, Artery created Bramble from the ground up to keep the DNA of its company alive in a virtual gathering space — to put some humanity into the experience of socialising online, as Ravich puts it. That result is Bramble, which almost feels like you’re playing an online game with your friends.
As we wander, Ravich tells me to move my avatar away from our small group. Their faces and voices slowly fade away until I can no longer see or hear them. I’m on the other side of the lobby, alone. As I rejoin the group, they slowly appear again until I can see and hear them fully — just like moving to and away from a group of people in real life. From a teaching perspective, it’s like telling students to form small groups and work on a project. They can be autonomous and decide where in the world they want to work, rather than having the teacher manually create breakout rooms in Zoom and place each student into one. Not only is that time-consuming, but it’s not nearly as fun.
“There’s communication and there’s gathering and socialising, and they’re not the same thing. One is a piece of the other,” Ravich says.
By allowing everyone to select personal avatars and giving them the agency to move around in the same space and explore what’s around them, it creates a much more relaxed environment, which encourages gathering and socialising — just like in a video game, which Ravich says was a major source of inspiration for Bramble’s design.
“The fundamentals of [Bramble] is agency. Letting somebody be able to talk to whoever they want to talk to, meet new people, and have some serendipity,” Ravich says.
Bramble has several different worlds, all created by in-house artists, which range from a snowy winter wonderland to a cosy campfire surrounded by pine trees. But the world we’re in at the moment is the “trippy” world. It’s all rainbow neon colours, geometric shapes, and dedicated rooms to host smaller events within the larger virtual world. The idea for this world came from Bramble’s collaboration with the House of Yes for its Halloween event last year.
We leave the lobby and enter the main room, which has a giant DJ station in the middle pumping out music. Here Ravich starts to tell me about Bramble’s more granular features. You can embed any YouTube playlist into the DJ station and it will play every song from beginning to end. The closer you are to the speakers, the louder the music gets, just like moving closer to the stage in real life.
From there we move to the right of the main room, toward two geometric domes. One is labelled as a performance space, and the other is a viewing space. The viewing space has three different screens inside of it, and each link up with a YouTube video just like the DJ station so you can host three different films at once. The performance space has a stage with a purple spotlight at the front. Whoever stands in the spotlight is the only one who can be seen and heard in the entire room. Everyone else in the room is automatically muted and their video feeds disappear. Open-mic poetry performance, anyone?
On the other side of the main room, there’s a small balcony where anyone can go to chill out or talk in more private, quieter setting. These types of areas were a lifeline in my clubbing days when I needed a break from the constant stream of activity.
Beyond creative events, one of Bramble’s next focuses is schools, and part of that entails how to make each world more customisable for the user, or “world-owner.” How can it be used to make it feel more like a classroom in a virtual environment? Bramble shared a few classroom examples with me, but part of being in a classroom environment is seeing the walls decorated with posters, student projects, whiteboards, etc.
“Personalizing your world is the next big set of features that are coming up,” Ravich says.
Excited to try Bramble out with my own students, I let them loose in the winter wonderland world. Some found a cosy spot in the lodge or library to write. Others wandered around in groups. While not every one of my students were able to experience Bramble due to their internet connection, the ones that did seemed to enjoy the break from boring ol’ Zoom.
Socio-emotional awareness has become a big talking point in schools since the start of the pandemic, and something like Bramble has that built into the core functions of its platform, which makes it a great option for teachers to use with their virtual classes.
Bramble is still in early access, and there are bugs to work out, but it feels pretty robust and stable even now. The possibilities with it seem endless.
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