Interest in virtual reality (VR) has exploded over the past year, with news agencies, sports teams, and gaming companies creating VR content. But its adoption in education has been hampered by confusion between two different meanings of the term. When VR first emerged a number of years ago, it referred to animated worlds that users explored as avatars, with the most famous being Second Life. While some educational institutions made interesting use of it, initial enthusiasm fizzled.
But this technology has been replaced by virtual reality goggles that put the users themselves into a new world. This can provide the experience of exploring a location or event. For instance, football teams have used them to have players watch virtual reality videos of a play unfolding from the perspective of their own positions. In this way players can see the plays from on the field in the midst of the action. They can see where other players line up and move around as the play develops, thus teaching them what they should be doing in reaction to various situations.
This past May I wrote in Online Classroom
about the many opportunities that the new VR brings to education. Faculty and students can shoot their own VR videos with their cell phones using the free Google Camera app and then watch them through those same cell phones with $5 Google Cardboard Viewers. A history professor visiting a historical site can shoot a VR video of the site that provides an on-the-ground narrated tour for students. Students in an interior design course can make VR videos of different types of locations and explain how their designs represent class concepts. This can be a very engaging form of applied assessment.
Carnegie Mellon is also using the technology to have students in its Entertainment Technology Center produce VR videos that provide the viewer with an emotional experience. One, called “Injustice,” puts the viewer in the center of a street scene of racially motivated police brutality and asks questions about what the viewer would do (http://bit.ly/2fpTeAZ
The videos that can be shot with a cell phone and free app are essentially 360-degree still images with narration that viewers can explore by turning their heads. If you want to shoot a moving scene, you need to use a domed VR camera that can be purchased for around $300 from any major electronics store, such as Best Buy. The ability to capture action presents a number of interesting possibilities. For instance, someone might shoot a play rehearsal from a camera set in the middle of the stage, showing how the actors move around. See some examples of high school student work for the Oculus 360 Filmmakers Challenge at: https://www.facebook.com/oculus360challenge
. Another option is to allow for live collaborations between classes in different countries. Two groups of students can sit around a conference table, each with a VR camera, and talk to one another, using their VR goggles, as if they were in the same room.
Microsoft has also gotten into the game with its recently released HoloLens system, which inserts three-dimensional content into the wearer's location. One use has been to project a hologram of the body into a room for medical students to walk around and explore. This system could also be used to project three-dimensional images of treasures from a museum to archeology students or to allow engineering students to explore machines in laboratories around the world. Take a look at this interesting video on the system and its possibilities: https://youtu.be/h4M6BTYRlKQ
Google is also creating VR tours of a number of world historical sites that faculty can lead students through with its free Expeditions app, as are many other companies. One benefit is that these tours provide a sense of the physical locations of their subjects that is not found in photos and videos. For example, while taking a tour of the Tomb of Moses on the Sites in VR app, I was struck not by the tomb itself but rather by its surroundings. Given the importance of the subject, I expected a grand hall, but the tomb seemed almost to be hidden away in a back room. I also noticed a very old fan with a nest of wires coming out above the tomb, like it had been put in place haphazardly at low cost, and that the room was colored in an older, almost 1960s look. This demonstrated how the manner of display of an object can teach something about cultural differences. I felt an explorer ducking into back alleys in the Middle East and discovered artifacts where I least expected them.
With the emergence of so much new VR content for education, I thought it time to give readers an update on the new apps and other material available for use in the classroom. All of the apps below are available for free from the Google Play store, and most are also available from the Apple App Store.
Google continues to add content to its Expeditions tours seemingly daily. You can visit historic structures and national parks, as well as tour both well-known and more esoteric museums, such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Many universities have also added virtual reality tours of their campuses to the content, and there is a large number of “Career Expeditions” to help students understand different professions. Google is also adding tours of the body for anatomy classes, as well as content on natural phenomena, such as earthquakes.
New York Times
The New York Times
continues to add to its VR collection with documentaries about events, such as the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as scientific content. One interesting video is “Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart,” which takes you on a tour of Pluto through the Voyager spacecraft. I was struck by how small the Sun appears when viewed from Pluto, smaller than our Moon, providing a much better perspective on how the former planet is on the outer edge of our galaxy than I get from just seeing the number of miles it is away from the Sun.
Sites in VR
The above-mentioned Sites in VR app provides tours of a variety of sites around the world, including churches, buildings, cities, and natural areas. One nice feature is the ability to search by type of content, such as church or location.
Titans of Space
Titans of Space provides a self-guided tour of the galaxy. The viewer is put into the perspective of a spacecraft flying around the planets. Viewers can choose to be taken to different planets on autopilot, or they can navigate themselves by turning their heads to look at buttons in the spacecraft.
Within is a VR app that pulls together content from a variety of sources, including short films and documentaries from the Sundance Film Festival. Make sure to watch the very fun “Invasion!,” which is an animated short about a rabbit who outsmarts invading aliens, as an example of what film makers are starting to produce.
VR in OR
VR in OR provides narrated tours of hospital procedures, such as a cancer surgery and a dental implant. The cancer surgery video is shot from right above the patient as the surgeon describes what he is doing while the viewer looks on.
Jaunt VR provides a variety of different types of material, including narrated tours of locations such as Cuba and Machu Picchu, as well as documentaries. One good example is shot from the perspective of a woman who narrates her experience of being caught in the London subway bombings by walking the viewer through the day.
More apps are likely to have emerged by the time this article is published. Just search “virtual reality” on the Google Play store or Apple Apps Store to find content for your courses.