Virtual Reality (VR) is going to be the next big thing for schools. You’ve heard that before, I know, but if school leaders think that this is yet another false dawn then they are mistaken: the technology has progressed to the point where major players like Facebook are ready to get involved in a big way (it bought VR firm Oculus Rift in 2014). In short, it is finally going mass market.
Immersive technology has the potential to be transformational in terms of the student learning experience. Explore the mountains of the Moon or the craters of Mars. Travel around the circulatory system of the human body or see what it is like to be inside the human gut as it digests food. Swim with sharks or walk with the dinosaurs. It is all possible when it comes to immersive VR environments.
So schools need to brush up on their VR knowledge. Here’s a quick guide to do just that.
How does it work?
Users wear a headset, often referred to as a head-mounted display (HMD), but it is so much more than a computer monitor strapped to your head. The aim of the HMD is to create a lifesize 3D environment that is unrestricted, unlike regular TV or monitor displays. The most advanced headsets do this in two key ways.
First, they display images through lenses that reshape what is being displayed to create a stereoscopic effect, similar to the one that you see when watching a 3D film. However, with VR, the image is much wider, and so fills your field of vision.
Second, they deploy head-tracking technology. So, for example, when the user moves their head to the right, the image tracks right too, revealing what was outside your field of vision on that side, just as would happen in ‘real life’. Likewise, if you moved your head down or up, the same thing would happen. VR headsets have a gyroscope, accelerometer and a magnetometer to ensure that head tracking works.
These headsets would need to be linked to a computer capable of running the VR software via a HDMI cable.
However, some headsets are more simple and work differently. For example, Google Cardboard (google.co.uk/get/cardboard) is a cardboard HMD in which you place an Android smartphone. Or the Samsung Gear VR works on the same principle of sticking a phone inside some goggles, but this time they’re not cardboard.
As you might expect, the latter method is the cheaper and arguably more practical for schools, because they do not require wires. However, they do not necessarily offer the same quality and level of immersion as the wired-up options.
How will it develop further?
More opportunities are being added to the experience of VR with every iteration of new hardware and software. Premium headset developers are working on motion tracking. This would enable users to not only see these immersive environments but also to interact with them and see their hands in the virtual world. Developers are even working on eye trackers to let the technology know where your eyes are looking within the virtual reality, so that as you move your eyes, the display will respond accordingly.
So is it worth investing now?
VR headsets are not the finished product and neither are they widely available yet. One of the most exciting headsets, the Oculus Rift, only became available in March and Sony’s Project Morpheus headsets will not be available until the end of October 2016.
However, that doesn’t mean that you cannot begin to capitalise on VR in the classroom already. To get an idea of what a learning experience could be like, visit this YouTube link to get up close and personal with a Great White Shark: bit.ly/greatwhitesharkvr
How can I get started?
If you fancy giving it a go, I recommend starting with Google Cardboard. It is relatively cheap, at £15 for the HMD. Simply construct it, pop your smartphone in and you’re away. But what opportunities are there for learning with Cardboard?
One option is Google Street View. Now, many of us have been on Google Maps and then on to Street View so that we can look at the outside of our house, but the Street View app with Cardboard is something else. Why not go on a geography field trip with your class and then use your smartphone to create your own 360-degree spherical image to help you remember the location when back in class? Pop your phone in Cardboard and immerse yourself. When visiting a historical location, you can do the same, and then use it to study when back in class.
Google Expeditions is another option. It is currently part of Google Expeditions Pioneer Programme, which aims to allow teachers to take children on school trips to places that the school bus cannot go. With the ability for a teacher to guide up to 50 children on a virtual panoramic immersive tour of locations throughout our galaxy, the opportunities for learning here are outstanding.
But, as with most education technology, it will be what you do with it that counts. Ensuring that you get some decent training is key, otherwise that investment in the latest big thing will end up like so many edtech developments: languishing in a cupboard. Don’t let that happen to VR. It is far too powerful a tool for schools for it to be wasted.
Mark Anderson is a former teacher and an education blogger, author and speaker @ICTevangelist