Young Innovators

These Stanford undergrads revived campus life in a completely virtual world

“This has taught us the importance of how much people want to interact.”

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Stanford announced in March that students would not return to in-class learning for the spring quarter. A few weeks later, five computer science undergrads at the university started working on a virtual campus where students could roam and meet up.

The virtual Stanford-themed world, Club Cardinal, has the look and feel of popular life simulation games like Club Penguin and Animal Crossing. Students can personalize their avatar, chat with each other, meet at specific campus locations, and design their own dorm rooms.

“It really does bring a smile to people’s faces,” team member Michelle Qin, Computer Science and Economics, Stanford ‘23, tells Inverse. “The design, the user experience, the phenomenon of bumping into each other again in this online space has really been able to create a community, especially at a time like this where people find that they can have fun on this platform in a positive way.”

Qin and her teammates — WenXin Dong, Computer Science, Stanford '23, Sreya Halder, Computer Science & Art, Stanford '23, Azhia Harris, Computer Science & Biology, Stanford '20, and Allison Zhang, Biology, Stanford '23 — are all scattered across the country building this virtual world together. In the beginning, they mostly messaged online or organized video calls, but now that they’ve integrated communication tools onto the platform, they can hold meetings there on their simulated campus. On September 10, the team gathered for a few hours in Qin’s virtual dorm room to fix bugs and prepare a new feature launching that weekend.

It’s an impressive feat of engineering and ingenuity — and super cute — and also a global success. Club Cardinal now has nearly 4,000 students from over 100 countries.

“It’s pretty amazing data,” Qin said.

Inverse spoke to Club Cardinal team members Qin, Zhang, and Halder about building a virtual campus and bringing joy and community to their peers.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Meet the team.

Tell me about how you assembled your teams.

Allison Zhang: We started working on Club Cardinal in late March early April, and this was right around the time that Stanford announced spring quarter would be fully online. Obviously, the five of us and all of our classmates and friends were really sad that we wouldn't see each other, be in our dorms, be on our campus even. That's where the need for a project like Club Cardinal came from.

We met through Stanford’s WiCS (Women in Computer Science) Innovation Mentorship Program, which is a 10-week program running through spring quarter where you get placed into groups. You work on any sort of projects you want and you are paired with a mentor in an industry to give you advice and help you along the way. That's where we met and began working on Club Cardinal.

Being remote, how are you able to collaborate with each other?

Michelle Qin: We’re not in person. We’re all living in different places, so the main form of communication has been online. Now that we've been building our platform, there's actually some communication tools that we've integrated onto the platform. We are actually able to use Club Cardinal as our way of holding meetings and communicating, so that's been really fun.

Can you talk about the communication platform you integrated into the platform and how that compares to how you'd typically interact on campus?

MQ: On the platform, users get their little human avatar and they can walk around these iconic university locations that we've drawn onto the site, and so they can message each other and their avatar will have a little speech bubble — and this is all in real time. So that’s one form of communication we've been able to have and have been seeing users interact with. Just the other day an upperclassman texted us that she had a 30-minute conversation with a freshman. This was all through the avatar text messaging, and so that was really rewarding to see.

Club Cardinal

Do you three have a favorite place to meet at within this virtual place?

Sreya Halder: We used to meet at Old Union which is one location that we replicated from campus.

How does it feel to be able to meet on certain places on campus that you're not able to access in the same way right now?

SH: I think that the way we've kind of implemented this virtual world is, we want it to be as close to campus as possible in how you would communicate with others. So if you were on campus, you would probably ask your friend to meet you at a certain location and you would just give the location name or maybe the address, and they would just meet you there. So similarly, you would say meet me at Tresidder, which is a student union at Stanford, and then they just go onto the site and click on the location as if you were traveling there. It's much more down to earth.

As students in computer science, how do you feel this project has changed the field?

MQ: We may all have different responses, different sorts of attachments to this project, but for me personally, it's taught me that there can be pure joy coming from building these social platforms. Not that other platforms aren't necessarily joyful, but they're not playful or fun; they don't have that sort of youthful, creative aspect in them. This platform, it really does bring a smile to people's faces. The design, the user experience, the phenomenon of bumping into each other again in this online space has really been able to create a community.

AZ: I’ve been able to meet people through Club Cardinal, being able to reconnect with old friends, just seeing them on “campus” and even among the five of us developers, too. I had only met one other person in person back on campus, we were living in the same dorm in the same hall — but Michelle, Sreya, and Asia, I don’t think I’ve ever met them in person and yet we've been able to grow so close working on this project for the past couple of months, which is another personal impact that working on Club Cardinal has had on me. I've been able to make three new friends purely through a virtual setting by working on this.

SH: This has taught us the importance of how much people want to interact. There's this great need to be able to see and feel things and have everything be as accessible as possible, and so the way that we’ve created our platforms is truly unique to any other communication platform that exists already. It’s not as rigid or structured or professional looking, but it still has all the functionalities that are necessary.

“If we had even one fewer member it would be so much harder to complete this project with how crucial everybody is.”

What is the biggest advantage of working with a team?

SH: We got extremely lucky with the team that was formed at the beginning of spring quarter. Most of us were randomly put together and told to make a project, and we just so happened to have the exact range of skills that are needed to make such a thing. As any real product that comes out of programming, you need engineers to be able to design and then develop the front end and the back end, and then also understand how users will interact with it, and also understand the business standpoint and the marketing and being able to complete all the graphics. And so I think if we had even one fewer member it would be so much harder to complete this project with how crucial everybody is. Working with a team is very important to make sure that you have enough people that cover the broad range of skills you need.

MQ: I completely agree. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this team, and through this experience I've learned how important a team is to building a great product. Like Sreya mentioned, each member of our five-person team really brings something unique to the table in terms of skill set, so we really are able to specialize in the important aspects like business, development, and design, but also we’re able to come together and give each other ideas that relate to each other's skill sets and bring this common passion forward. The range of skill sets is extremely important in a team and also the community. So the five of us are entirely female-led and student-led. Having an empowering culture where people feel comfortable with each other and can encourage one another is also an important aspect that our team definitely has.

What was the moment you came up with this idea and how did you feel uniquely up to the challenge to make this happen at this point in time?

SH: We started late March/early April, so the beginning of spring quarter for us, and we were just brainstorming some projects we could do, putting things out on the table. A couple of our members had thought of this idea from just before the quarter began of having a virtual Stanford campus. We found a lot of inspiration from games like Club Penguin and Animal Crossing, things that we used to play as kids but people still enjoy as college students. While those definitely have a much more childish audience and the graphics are purely for gaming, we wanted to draw inspiration from the format. You could personalize your avatar, you can chat with other people, and there were specific locations to go to. You can also have your own personal space, which we made the dorm room. Everything would be Stanford-themed and there would be Stanford locations, and it really made people feel like they could have fun playing those games and they could have fun being virtually on campus. We decided to go forward with that idea to bring a lot of joy to everyone.

AZ:There have been a lot of virtual worlds that are popping up around this time, so we were hopping on that trend as well. We really are very much tied to a university and very customized in that way as best as we can kind of recreate college life. We’re rolling out a couple new features including bulletin boards and flyering to really tie the current virtual communication platform to a physical space.

SH: I think we're probably going to meet later tonight for several hours so we can fix all the bugs on our site before we launch a bunch of new features this weekend. We're launching on Sunday our beta 2.0, and it has over seven new features. We're just finalizing those and I think planning out doing some user testing, and it'll probably take quite some time.

What was it like going to each other's virtual dorm rooms for the first time having not met in person before?

SH: We have a feature where you can customize your dorm room as much as you want. You can purchase furniture, change the colors of it, and click and drag. It's like a replication of real life. I thought it was really interesting to see how people decorate their dorm rooms. It's a great way of seeing people's personalities.

AZ: I did want to add one thing about the dorm room. A couple weeks ago, we were working with the software class president to set up a class of 2023 summer reunion on Club Cardinal and one of the things we did were dorm reunions where you would meet up with all your friends who lived in Roble Hall or in Wilbur Hall, and we actually hosted these in individual people’s dorm rooms, too. We were able to see 30 to 40 people piled into the same location again and we were able to interact with them. It was a nice event to have and something that I think would have been less possible without a space like this.

MQ: Something particular with technology is that we’re still able to create things without having to be in person. We’re all scattered across America. Sreya’s in the East coast, I'm on the West coast, and yet we still are able to form a team and build something together. There are students across the entire world, there are international students, everyone went home because class is online. And yet, we have all been able to come together. We have had students from over 100 countries. It's pretty amazing data — nearly 4,000 students from over 100 countries. The fact that our team and our user base is so far away from each other and yet we can come together through this project is amazing, and that's all because of technology.

The Inverse Young Innovators series has stories you won’t get anywhere else about the STEM leaders of tomorrow who are making an impact today.

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