This past November, all subscribers to The New York Times received a Google Cardboard Virtual Reality Viewer in the mail. Puzzled looks quickly turned to awe as recipients took 3-D virtual reality tours of a variety of locations through the viewers and their cell phones. You simply put the viewer to your face like goggles and play 3-D recorded videos of places from YouTube or the free NYT VR app (available from both Google Play and the App Store). The viewers put you in the middle of a scene, such as New York City or a traditional German Christmas market. By turning your head you could look around the scene as if you were actually there. The goggles can be ordered online for about $4 each from eBay or www.newegg.com.
The success of the goggles has led Google to send people around the world wearing helmets with 17 cameras attached to each to create virtual reality tours of nearly every place of interest, from monuments to archeological sites, from the tops of mountains to the bottoms of the seas. They have even created a free Expeditions program where Google ambassadors come to schools to organize virtual reality workshops.
I attended one of these, and the teacher led the session by choosing tours on her iPad while the students were taken to the places chosen. A teacher can bring students to a particular point by tapping within the image on his or her iPad, which shows the students an arrow to that spot. As students arrive, the teacher sees camera icons on his or her own screen around that spot to show that the students are watching. The teacher also has information along the sidebar about each location for discussion. It is essentially a lesson in a box, and over 100 are currently available. The app to lead these sessions is currently in beta but will be coming out in the fall.
In addition, The New York Times is starting to record virtual reality tours of the news events it covers. For instance, you can use the app to experience the vigils in Paris after the terrorist attacks. You can even get real-time virtual reality experiences, such as this year's NBA game between the Warriors and Pelicans, which was filmed with a virtual reality camera and live-streamed so that fans at home could have the experience of sitting courtside and looking around during a game.
The latest advance is cell phone apps that allow anyone to make virtual reality videos themselves. Cardboard Camera, again available for free from Google Play, allows you to make virtual reality videos by pointing your phone, clicking the record button, and slowly rotating around in a circle to record your surroundings. It takes about a minute to complete the turn, with the device telling you to slow down if you are going too fast. The results are stitched together into a video, which you can narrate while shooting. Soon, shooting virtual reality videos will be the norm on vacations.
Google also added a virtual reality button to YouTube that allows any video on the site to be played in virtual reality mode. Of course, if the video was not shot in virtual reality mode, then you do not get the true virtual reality experience. But the point is that you can now use YouTube to broadcast your virtual reality videos to your audience.
Virtual reality will be a game-changer for education. The viewers are cheap enough for any student to buy—or you can just buy a few for a class. Soon you will be able to take a virtual reality tour of any place of interest in the world. If you teach an architecture class, you can have students take tours of the structures that you study. Animated tours of the insides of molecular structures for chemistry classes will be available. I will be able to incorporate tours of intensive care units into my medical ethics course to give students the sense of how the mechanized, sterile environment can appear frightening to a patient. I'm sure virtual reality tours will soon supplement traditional photographs as part of gathering evidence at crime scenes, which offers the possibility of using such tours in criminal justice courses.
Faculty will also be making their own virtual reality videos as part of their travels. A history teacher visiting Rome on vacation will shoot virtual reality videos of the historic locations to use in class. A biology teacher offering a course on ecosystems will make videos of the different environments that are encountered, such as wetlands and forests. Online teachers will also make videos of their departments to provide their students with the sense of physical space that on-site students get. These videos will help reduce online student isolation and better connect students with their institutions. Of course, virtual reality tours of the campuses themselves will be part of recruitment, which online programs can use to further connect students to the institutions.
Finally, instructors will assign students to film virtual reality videos themselves to illustrate how topics covered in their courses play out in their environments. Students in an online geology course could be required to make a narrated virtual reality video describing the features and history of a geographic formation in their area. Students will share these videos with one another via YouTube or some other host and comment on one another's work.
The sky's the limit, so consider how you could incorporate virtual reality into your courses.