I enjoyed my first look at virtual reality at the BETT Show back in January, and my interest in its potential use in an educational context was revived by some informal conversations at the recent Geography Association Conference. When Richard Allaway shared some of his thoughts about VR in the Conference Teachmeet – I knew I had to spend some time finding out more about this technology.
What is Virtual Reality?
“A computer technology that replicates an environment in a way that allows us to interact with it. Virtual realities artificially create a sensory experience, which can include sight, touch, hearing and smell” (Wikipedia)
Brief History of VR
Virtual reality has actually been around for a lot longer than you might have thought. This picture of a ‘sensorama’ machine dates back to the 1950’s:
This ‘experience theatre’ displayed stereoscopic 3-D images in a wide angled view, and even provided body tilting, stereo sound, and tracks for wind and aromas to be triggered during the short films that were shown.
In the 1990s, cinemas began to make use of 3-D computer graphics, while Sega and Nintendo started to work on virtual reality games, but their projects were cancelled before they came to market. In 2007, Google rocked the world with its ‘street view’ project – providing interactive panoramic views which soon covered all areas of our planet.
One Great Leap Forward occurred in 2010, when 20 year old Palmer Luckey developed ‘Ocular Rift’ through a Kickstarter project. He used 2-D images, but in a 90 degree filed of vision – previously unseen in the market. His idea served as the base for all later designs in this form of technology.
In 2013, Nintendo filed a patent for 3-D effects on 2-D TVs, and in 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion to purchase a company making VR headsets called Oculus VR – perhaps the highest price ever paid for a company yet to release any products to the general public. The market was now heating up, and around this same time, Sony produced a VR headset for PlayStation 4.
Google then changed the game completely when, at its 2014 conference, it introduced ‘Google Cardboard’ – a simple stereoscopic VR viewer to be used with Smartphones. This simple device mounts two cheap lenses in a rigid paper frame above a smartphone screen to create a good quality display – and its low cost (currently available on Amazon from £8) opened up the potential market to billions of customers, as modern smartphones can run the Cardboard software.
To draw attention to its cardboard viewers, Google launched its Expeditions Project in September, 2015. Thousands of schools around the world have applied for the scheme, which brings a Google Expedition team into work with students for a day, along with all the kit needed to take them on a virtual trip. This includes smart phones, cardboard viewers, a tablet for a teacher to direct the tour, and even a server so that the expedition can be followed without the internet. I attended an excellent demonstration session at the BETT Show back in January (see January blog), where Google Cardboard devices were available to enjoy panoramic views of places like the Pyramids, Mars, and the Great Wall of China – while a teacher was able to direct movements from a tablet, and prompt us with questions and instructions. Google has already prepared around 200 expeditions for this project, and used the BETT Show to launch new expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef and A guided tour of Buckingham Palace.
For entry level VR, Cardboard does the job well. More than five million Cardboard-class viewers had shipped by the beginning of 2016, and this part of the market continues to grow, with many big brands vying for a piece of the action, using VR for “content marketing” campaigns. Ikea has just released a ‘VR experience’ free on the Steam gaming store,while McDonalds in Sweden is currently trialing happy meal boxes that turn into VR headsets. Dubbed ‘Happy Goggles’, they allow viewers to play a skiing-themed VR game. Google Cardboard with fries!
However, Cardboard is limited to a degree by the technology in our Smartphones. Sensors used to keep the display in sync with head movements (necessary for generating the illusion of immersion in the virtual world) work slowly on a Smartphone. Slow sensor speeds can also lead to a feeling of motion-sickness that can overwhelm VR users as what they’re seeing with their eyes (perception) disagrees with what their inner ears (proprioception) tells them. However, Samsung has developed its GearVR, a similar device to Cardboard – but rather more expensive at around £90 – with improved sensors that transform a high-end Smartphone into a midrange virtual reality system.
After starting with a cardboard viewer, I soon moved on to a ‘Viewmaster’, manufactured by Mattel. This sturdy plastic device costs around £20, and I feel holds the ‘phone more securely in its closed case. It also has a proper switch to respond to on-screen instructions – a big improvement on the sliding magnet offered by early Cardboard models.
At the top end of VR development, there is currently fierce competition between a number of major players. With Facebook now owning Oculus, the new Oculus CV1 is soon to join the Oculus Rift (around £500) in the market place, as will HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Technology in this price bracket includes a range of sensors that take into account where the viewer’s head is positioned, as well what the head is looking at. The HTC Vive also includes two handheld controllers that are also positionally tracked, effectively giving you hands inside the virtual world. Google Cardboard, and other mid-range units do track the viewer’s head as it moves around, but do not track the viewer’s body position. So if the viewer moves around, the system will not recognise this.
What Role Will VR Play in Education?
VR has already made an impact in many areas of our lives. The gaming industry has embraced this new technology, with Minecraft for example developing a version of its platform for the HTC Vive viewer that turns it into a full VR game. Apart from its rich potential as a gaming tool, VR is making a serious contribution to training programmes in the military, in aviation, in medicine (teaching surgical techniques and treating phobias), and also in architectural design. As with many other aspects of modern technology, there is also a darker side emerging in VR – with pornographic applications planned to be viewed via handsets in hotel rooms in American hotel rooms. But what of education?
All new technology is engaging – although not every development stands the full test of time. VR could be another tool in a teacher’s toolbox, helping them to immerse their students in new experiences with endless possible outcomes. A whole new world could open up for History teachers, as they recreate battlefield conditions for their students. English teachers could take their students on a virtual tour of Verona to assist their studies of the text of Romeo and Juliet, while Art teachers could lead virtual tours of galleries and museums. Science lessons could include virtual journeys within our own bodies, navigating through blood vessels and internal organs, while Design teachers could lead their classes through 3D plans.
I have always found new technology often opens many doors within Special Needs lessons that have remained closed by traditional teaching. The potential of VR as a stimulus to written and oral communication in this area is an exciting prospect waiting to be explored.
As for my subject – Geography – the possible applications are obvious. This is a tool that can help develop a deeply immersive sense of place and time, by visiting selected locations to emphasise the ‘awe and wonder’ of the physical and man-made world. Fieldtrips can be enhanced by VR – both prior to the visit (for preparatory work and risk assessments) and again after returning to the classroom for follow-up work. I taught long enough to remember the impact that video first had on my students when it was introduced into school – bringing alive the textbook photos, and virtually transporting students to the study locations. VR adds (literally) a new dimension to this technology, and I can only imagine the results of projects where students for example design 360 tours to show off the attractions of their local areas.
As hardware develops further (and at the same time reduces in price), and more and more software becomes available, the creative skills of teachers will mould many new ways of adopting this technology into their learning programmes. There is already a huge amount of 360 degree photographs and video already available on You Tube (with a You Tube 360 app available), and live streaming will not be too far away. Modern Smartphones allow us to create our own panoramic images with ease, and dedicated 360 degree cameras are already affordable. Popularity of sites such as www.round.me that showcase and share such images is growing.
Dedicated software and other resources for VR are beginning to emerge in the market-place, and Nearpod has recently released a package of VR lesson plans as well as a virtual fieldtrip project that operates in a similar way to Google Expeditions. If any of use the excellent ‘Thinglink’ app, it has recently released a sister app called ‘VR Lessons’ which marries VR film clips into the traditional Thinglink set up. It costs £3.99, and at present only contains five ‘virtual experiences’ – but promises more to be add d in coming months. A VR editor is planned so that people can add their own content – that is something I look forward to.
This all makes it possible for an innovative teacher to dip his or her toe into the VR water with their classes, but I have serious reservations about the widespread integration of VR into school lessons. However impressive the demonstration was at BETT for Google’s Expedition Project – how likely is it that this could be replicated in a typical classroom? Apart from a visit from the Expedition Team with its collection of Cardboard viewers already loaded with a mobile device, the only way to do so would be to invest in a class set of viewers (affordable perhaps, at less than £200), and then make use of the students own ‘phones. I don’t know of many schools who have sets of Smartphones in their classrooms – although I do wonder if there might be a use here for all of those confiscated ‘phones I used to collect in my office!
So Where Do I Start?
If you want to explore some of the possibilities of VR, begin by buying a cheap viewer. I love the concept of Google Cardboard, but after trying out a couple of models, I soon migrated to the affordable Viewmaster by Mattell. Just pop ‘Virtual reality viewers’ into an Amazon search, and you may be surprised by what is currently available.
You will then need some software to try out. You Tube is a great source of 360 images, and App stores for both Android and iOS already feature a wealth of titles that produce immersive effects, from roller coaster rides to volcano tours. Android probably has a bit more to offer at present, but new IOS versions of much of Google’s software is due to be made available to the public sometime this year. Some of the programmes are pretty rubbishy, but new better products are being released each day.
To get you started, you might want to check out some of the following:
- Google Cardboard app has a free official app with a number of nice ‘tasters’, including a nice flight on the back of a seabird.
- In Mind VR app is a free game which allows you to journey into a person’s brain to search for neutrons that cause disorder.
Dino Trek VR is a free app for kids and retired Geography teachers.
- Star Wars have released a free app, part of which puts you in the role of a secret agent in Jakku – the desert landscape that features in the film.
- Google Camera is a free app for Android (IOS support is coming!) that allows you to take 360 degree VR pictures to show.
- Vrse is a free app that acts as a hub of high quality 360 video content, including short films and music concerts. I particularly like one of their underwater documentaries.
- New York Times VR is a free app full of Vr news stories.
- Jaunt is a free app that follows two climbers as they climb and BASE jump around Yosemite and Utah.
- Street View is not strictly VR, but full of 360 images from around the world that can be used for free.
- Night Zookeeper VR uses a giraffe ride to encourage writing skills for younger students.
- Viewmaster has a number of free apps that leads onto in-app purchases for extra resources that include VR games, VR experiences and VR films. However, at £11 a shot, these are a bit pricey.
- VR Walk Inside Volcano is a half-decent VR experience.
- VR Helicopter Vegas flies you over ‘The Strip’ at night.
- Lift Off VR flies you up into the higher atmosphere on a space rocket.
- Roller Coaster by Fibrum is probably the best of many similar apps.
- Sisters is a free first person ghost story that has a bit of ‘scare’ to it.
What is the Future of VR?
Will it ever achieve accepted mainstream adoption or will it flop like 3D TV did a few years ago? I am not yet convinced that our 2D screens will ever become obsolete, but I do appreciate that the VR market is growing at an astounding speed. As prices tumble and more and better resources and applications become available, it’s place in education may gather serious speed – although there is probably a need for a pedagogical shift in the classroom for it to become truly ‘mainstream’. However, as devices become available in the home, we may well find ourselves once more in a position in schools of playing technological catch-up – with the students living in a world of ‘haves’ at home, and ‘have nots’ at school.
VR technology seems to be becoming increasingly interactive as it evolves, and the use of avatars – perhaps famous actors or experts – to guide viewers around sites is an interesting development. The popularity of online courses is already impacting on higher education institutions, and VR opens up many new opportunities to refine this experience.
One thing I can’t get out of my mind right now is the incredible reaction of my 3 year old Grandson when I showed him some dinosaurs rampaging around our living room – a really precious moment. I love the range of possibility offered by VR, but don’t yet know if a new, sustainable revolution is upon us.
If anyone comes across any useful VR resources, or would like to share their thoughts and experiences – please get in touch.