The first time you put on a virtual reality headset you instantly realize that this is a completely different video experience. I expected it to be fun and immersive, but I thought it would be flawed. I expected some lag between turning my head, and the video adjusting to my new view. I thought the angles would be off as I moved around. Basically, I thought there would be plenty of visual indicators that would remind me that I was using VR, and taking me out of the experience. I was wrong, it is seamless and the result is almost magical. You literally feel like you are in this virtual space.
Typical video technology is limited by its two dimensional nature. When you look at a flat image on a monitor, at the very best it can appear to be a window to another space. You feel like you are peeking into that remote location, but it’s hard to maintain the illusion that you have actually transported to that remote place. With virtual reality, it feels like you are actually there. When you look around by moving your head, and the view adjusts accordingly, it creates a very powerful effect. You hear a noise behind you, turn around, and see the source of that noise. The results are often pretty funny, as people react to the virtual world as if it was real. (Warning, the video below contains language which is NSFW).
I’ve been enjoying supposedly “immersive” technology for many years now, from immersive video games, to immersive movies, to immersive telepresence videoconferencing. Up till now, they all had one thing in common, your own imagination was required for the experience to be at all immersive. Even with the best movies, there is a big part of your brain that is still very much aware that you are sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn, and not really sharing an adventure with Luke Skywalker or Superman. Virtual reality is the first technology where no imagination is required. It really feels like you are there, whether the virtual space is video of a real place, or a fantastic cartoon landscape.
The potential to use this technology for education is pretty clear. A teacher’s lecture on ancient Rome could be pretty boring for a typical student. A virtual trip to the Colosseum in its prime, or to a Roman battlefield, would be far more engaging. We learn best by actively experiencing things for ourselves. So not only is a virtual reality lesson more engaging for students, it could provide better learning results.
As virtual reality becomes more and more affordable, and more content becomes available, we will be seeing a lot more VR in the classroom. Google Cardboard (as shown in the TED Talk video above), literally uses a headset made out of cardboard and your smart phone. This makes it deployable in a typical classroom setting. The students’ experience can be controlled and managed on the teacher’s tablet, allowing for a guided virtual field trip.
Google Expeditions offers free VR apps for classrooms, but the school has to purchase a kit including the VR devices. Other vendors, such as NearPod (shown above), flip the model, offering the device kits for free (at least as part of a current campaign) with licenses for use of the app.
The Virtual Reality Society states that the benefits of VR in the classroom include the following:
- Active rather than passive experience.
- Immersive experience means no distractions.
- Immediate engagement: useful in today’s world of limited attention spans.
- Exploration and hands on approach aids with learning and retention.
- Helps with understanding complex subjects/theories/concepts.
- Suited to all types of learning styles, e.g. visual.
Teachers are clearly aware of these potential benefits, as a majority are already interested in trying VR in the classroom. Many schools already have VR programs in place and are reporting great success.
The implications of VR based learning could be farther reaching than we even suspect. In a New York Times study, a teacher found that use of VR not only taught the students, but helped them build empathy when learning about people in unfortunate circumstances. This could mean students in the future will have a much greater appreciation for historic events like Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. As a child, I read about that horrible winter. The next generation will be touring the camp with George Washington. They won’t just be learning about it, they will experience it (other than the cold).
We are clearly at a tipping point with the new affordability, flexibility, and quality of virtual reality. I expect these to pop up in classrooms very quickly in the next few years.