Nearly everyone has heard of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and while these terms tend to be used in different ways, all involve creating a digital world. In VR, the user enters a wholly digital world, as in Second Life or World of Warcraft; in AR digital content is projected onto the real world, as with the creatures in Pokémon Go that are projected onto the user’s surroundings, or images of pre-earthquake San Francisco superimposed on current views of the city.
Faculty at the University of Chicago have developed a new version of what they term alternate reality (Ehret, 2019). Here the virtual content is a vision of a better world superimposed on the world of today. Students use it to imagine solutions to current problems, such as climate change.
University of Chicago faculty primed student imagination by first creating a multiplayer game called Terrarium, which incoming students played over the summer before they arrived on campus. This game involved four different worlds, each a version of the year 2049 ravaged by climate change. The game demonstrated the problems that climate change, left unchecked, could bring about. This gave students the background information they needed to start brainstorming ways to address those problems.
Once students arrived on campus, they were assigned to groups to create a plan to address climate change. This allowed incoming students to immediately start developing a sense of community and learn collaboration skills that would benefit them both in school and later in life. Plus, the fact that the project was inherently interesting and nongraded created motivation and started students thinking about their future duty to make a better world.
The students discussed potential options and then designed a solution to climate change by superimposing a digital representation of the plan onto the real world. For instance, one group envisioned installing algae trees on campus that would not only sequester carbon but also provide light and food. Another planned a low-cost clothing swap program to reduce textile waste.
A panel of judges voted on the best ideas in a variety of categories. One was called the Smarty Pants Awardfor a system that cleaned and reused fast-food takeout containers. The Most Likely to Go Viral Awardwas for an app that helped users reduce their electricity consumption. And the Hail Mary Awardwent to a plan to use genetically modified plants to sequester carbon dioxide.
Alternate reality projects present a new way for faculty and institutions to connect student expertise in virtual reality and digital design with real-world applications. They allow students to stretch their creativity by envisioning how the world around them might be transformed for the better. They get students to engage in research and discussion of real-world problems and potential solutions and to consider how current technologies can be repurposed to solve problems. Finally, they allow students to practice communicating ideas and solutions to problems to a wide audience in a way that is persuasive.
While higher education portrays itself as preparing students to address current and future problems, too often it focuses on teaching what is rather than asking students to think about what could be. If we are going to develop a generation prepared to solve the problems of our world, we will need to do more to get students to envision a different future and strategize about how to reach it. The growth of virtual reality and digital design applications now make this easier than ever.
For instance, an art class could have student groups create designs for outdoor art installations around campus, superimposing designs onto images of campus. An agriculture class might have students create designs for a sustainable farm on the Moon where everything is recycled so that no outside resources are needed. An engineering course could have students envision engineering solutions to problems around campus, such as elevated sidewalks or bike lanes. And drawing on current events, a microbiology course could have students envision how a country could implement technologies and processes to effectively respond to a pandemic. Departments might also use alternate reality competitions to foster student community and collaboration, such as an urban studies department hosting an annual competition to design innovative public transportation system that eliminates the need for cars within a city.
There are numerous apps that students can easily learn for creating their designs. Canva is an excellent graphic design app that allows users to import images and draw on them or superimpose other images over them to represent an alternate reality. Students can also create video descriptions of their ideas using apps such as Educreations Whiteboard, which allows users to important images and draw on a whiteboard and then add motion and narration to demonstrate how an idea would work in the real world. For projects in and around campus, students can use an augmented reality app, such as Metaverse Studio, to superimpose their designs right onto the landscape. Students create designs that they import into the app and when other users open the project on their cellphones the design is superimposed on their surroundings through their camera’s view.
Alternate reality presents an exciting way to engage students’ minds and passions in solving real-world problems. Consider the ways that alternate reality projects can be used in your courses, department, or institution.
Ehret, E. R. (2019, October 9). Alternate reality game sparks innovative student ideas about climate change. UChicago News. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/alternate-reality-game-sparks-innovative-student-ideas-about-climate-change
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