These are newsworthy times for tech and innovation. Two developments in particular have caught many an eye. One is eBay’s launch of the world’s first virtual reality department store in Australia, where shoppers can browse through thousands of items from the comfort of their homes using headsets like the Samsung Gear VR. The other is the release of Hyper-Reality, a six-minute concept film by emerging technologist Keiichi Matsuda, which provides a glimpse into a future where physical and virtual realities have intertwined.
These developments shouldn’t come as a surprise. The year 2016 was forecast by analysts to be the breakthrough year for virtual reality (VR), with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets being released, as well as the Sony’s PlayStation VR gaming rig. Virtual reality, also known as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated reality, has entered the mainstream and people are excited about its possibilities.
The question of whether VR is the future of education is a timely one. A quick search online reveals dozens of relevant articles have been written recently, focusing particularly on applications in higher education. The consensus is that the technology could have a major impact, and the response is backed by academic researchers.
January 2016 saw the publication of “Emerging Tools and Applications of Virtual Reality in Education,” a new addition to the Advances in Educational Technologies and Instructional Design book series. In this comprehensive volume, the various contributors make the case that virtual reality enriches the student learning process but also equips the next generation of industry leaders with the most innovative tools available.
Some observers suggest that VR is already transforming education, as costs have lowered and advancements in mobile, processing, and graphics technologies have caught up with the imagination. Here are just six ways VR is currently being applied to teaching and learning around the world.
Expeditions Pioneer Program
In May 2016, the Toronto District School Board’s STEM K-12 Team invited its Twitter followers to explore the world through Google Expeditions. Toronto teachers are the first in Canada to have an opportunity to sign up for the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program, a revolutionary (and no-cost) classroom experience that allows educators in an increasing number of cities to engage their students in immersive VR using Google Cardboard headsets. Free from physical travel requirements, a trained teacher can take up to 50 students at a time on 150 virtual field trips to sites including Antarctica, the Acropolis, Chichen Itza, the Borneo rainforest, and even Mars.
zSpace is in the business of using VR technology to change and accelerate the way science, technology, engineering and math, medical learning, and corporate training are delivered in schools. They are hopeful that students will make discoveries together, potentially leading to better collaboration and improved communications skills that will help them succeed in the workplace. Ten educational institutions around the world are members of zSpace’s Center of Excellence, a program committed to raising leaders of innovation.
Alchemy VR collaborated recently with the Natural History Museum in London and the Australian Museum in Sydney to produce two documentaries: First Life, which transports audiences back millions of years to the dawn of life on Earth, and Great Barrier Reef VR Dive, taking viewers on an exploration of the plants and wildlife of the Great Barrier Reef. Reflecting on the future of virtual reality storytelling, renowned broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who narrates both films notes, “We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.”
Immersive VR Education
Immersive VR Education, based in Waterford, Ireland, offers educational software designed to inspire the next generation to reach its full potential through more engaged learning in fields such as astronomy, emergency response training, and beyond. One of the organization’s underlying philosophies is that in learning, 90% of what we retain in memory is based on what we say and do through real and simulated experiences.
N High School
The N High School in Okinawa, Japan, which opened in April 2016, is a fully-accredited high school with a distinctive feature: nearly all school activities are held online. The school, operated by publishing and media company Kadokawa Dwango Corp., aims to develop tech-savvy students to become future innovators. Seventy-three of the 1,482 freshmen attended the opening ceremony (with a 360-degree view of the campus) via VR headset.
The Medical Virtual Reality (MedVR) group at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is exploring and evaluating areas where virtual reality simulation technology can add value to traditional clinical assessment and intervention approaches in diverse fields, including medicine, neuroscience, physical and occupational therapy, motor/cognitive skills rehabilitation, and psychology. Established in 1999, ICT is sponsored by the US Army.
Virtual reality is not just the future of education but part of its present. Its applications are varied and exciting. Further research and development will raise philosophical considerations that have so far been only hypothetical in nature. Israeli futurist Dr. David Passig cautions us to have reasonable expectations and not let our imaginations run rampant, while asserting that VR “could be a viable tool and driving force to accelerate the evolution of humankind.”
James Palik | Contributing Writer