Since the university’s sudden closure in March, students, faculty, and staff are still waiting to return to campus and experience its bustling atmosphere. As a result of the pandemic and the subsequent physical distancing measures, four UTM students decided to bring the campus to life through the classic video game Minecraft.
Jonathan Ho, Lance Santiago, Akira Takaki, and Naaz Sibia are all members of UTM White Van, a discord server consisting of over 1200 UTM students and alumni dedicated to discussing events from the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Society, UTM news, and advice.
The idea of creating a virtual campus first started circling in March, following the closure of the UTM campus, but the project didn’t officially begin until mid-June. Project UTMC began with Deerfield, the main building for Computer Science students. “We were feeling homesick in a way. Deerfield is our home building, so to speak. We figured since most of us played Minecraft [already], we might as well build it, so the presence of Deerfield is there. Now we can visit it whenever we want,” says Lance Santiago, who is going into his final year with a major in statistics and a double minor in computer science and math.
The initiative is impressive to new and returning students alike—those who miss campus and those who are missing out on the chance to see it for the first time due to COVID-19. The virtual reality they’ve created bears a remarkable resemblance to reality.
The astonishingly detailed recreation took just a month, with the team working on it in their spare time. The team used publicly available resources, such as Google Maps and floor plans found on the UTM Timetable service, to nail down the exterior of the building. They also did a video walkthrough to achieve a replica of the interior of the building itself. “We had a lot of resources to make sure we got everything right,” says Jonathan Ho.
The attention to detail is evident when looking at the finished product. In a video available on the UTM White Van website, a walkthrough takes viewers on a virtual tour, showcasing the recreation and its incredible accuracy. The hallways, classrooms, and common areas, right down to the furniture, are a perfect virtual model of the real building.
While the project began with just four students and a virtual Deerfield Hall, it has grown considerably and extended to other parts of the UTM campus. “For [Maanjiwe Nendamowinan], we currently have about eight or nine people [working on it]. […] We were all in the same program, but we really got to know each other through the server, and through quarantine we got closer to each other as well, just talking through the server almost every day,” says Santiago.
Because the project is open to any member of the server, the team is cautious with granting editing access to Project UTMC. Lance Santiago exclaimed: “there’s always the chance where we give the wrong person access, and then the whole server is on fire.” To mitigate this, the team ensures that they are familiar with who is getting involved before giving them full access to their creation.
“Over time, after we’ve been talking for a while and getting to know them, they can join and start to work on building,” says Santiago. “We’re open to anyone helping.”
The expanding team demonstrates the desire to see more of the campus come to life in Minecraft, and people are eager to help. “If they want to just work on classrooms or exterior, they’re free to do that. Once they’re there, we don’t want to limit people as to what they can build,” says Ho. As design lead, however, Ho does get the final say.
“Our builders can consult [Ho] when building decisions need to be made, such as what blocks to use and how the finished products should look. We want to make sure everything looks uniform,” says Santiago.
The platform itself, Minecraft, was a familiar and robust asset in their endeavor. According to Ho, “a lot of the members within the server also played Minecraft at some point, so they have access to an account and know the right tools. We chose Minecraft because it allowed the most creative capabilities when it came to something like recreating a campus.”
It also allowed the team, some of whom have been playing Minecraft for almost a decade, to reminisce on the game and platform they know so well. “Coming back to it after a while away was nice. It felt like I was a kid again, and getting to play with people that I know well has been very nice,” continued Santiago.
The team is open to its recreation being used as a virtual campus for events or even graduations. Ho says, “to take advantage of the virtual environment for something like that would be very cool. We learned that there are a couple of other universities that are using some sort of virtual platform to host events, and it would be a really cool opportunity to see something like that in the future for [the project].” In this era of advancing digital technology, Project UTMC offers yet another way to stay connected.
In terms of the project’s future, they see progress slowing as everyone returns to classes and a full workload. For Ho and Santiago, they haven’t yet decided where the end of the line is for them. “After graduation, [we’ve] considered continuing it and possibly passing it on. Some of our builders are in their first or second year, so we can always pass the torch on.”
The project has been extremely well-received by staff and students alike, and many students are excited about potentially having a virtual campus to visit, as a return to campus life is still up in the air due to COVID-19. Project UTMC has the potential to comfort homesick students and provide a virtual platform for new and future students to explore. The team is optimistic about its future, with Ho concluding, “We don’t know how far we’ll take it, but we’re happy for now.”