A sixth-grade class in Albany, New York, is studying Paris, France. In their classroom, they put on plastic headsets — and in seconds they are “strolling” along the Seine River, looking out atop the Eiffel Tower, and wandering the Louvre, even honing in on specific works of art.
Sound crazy? Computer-generated environments that help students enhance their education — but never replace it — are part of the promise of virtual reality; the above scenario may not be all that far off. Just as the video game world has allowed gamers to do for years, students could potentially be inside a movie as part of the story, instead of watching it passively from the outside as mere spectators.
Traditional learning still matters and must matter, of course. Students learn best from the teachers they engage with in their classrooms in rigorous, disciplined ways, held to high standards — and many of today’s devices and those of the future have serious limitations.
But some entrepreneurs see vast new potential for education. Kids could get piqued about geography by taking a virtual walking tour though Tokyo or London. A history class could “step inside” a virtual Mayan village and temple, rather than just reading a chapter in a book about the ancient Mayas or even looking it up on screen.
Maybe the topic is World War I. Kids could take part in a “session” in which they navigate a trench, meet soldiers hunkered down inside it, and listen to them tell their stories.
“We don’t see virtual reality as a replacement for traditional education — it’s an enhancement,” said David Whelan, CEO of Immersive VR Education. “It will deepen students’ interest in what they’re learning and inspire the students to want to learn more.”
A science teacher, for example, could encourage more thinking about space with two astronomy-relevant courses now available on Immersive’s website: “The Apollo 11 Virtual Reality Experience,” with which users relive the lunar landing; and “Titans of Space” (produced by Drash VR), a visual journey around our solar system complete with up-close looks at several planets and moons.
“The experience of going through the solar system and visiting planets and asteroids, or becoming Neil Armstrong and landing on the Moon — those kinds of experiences are what inspire kids to really want to learn that particular subject,” Whelan said.
Students often learn best by doing an activity. With Immersive’s ballistics-related program, users shoot projectiles from a cannon while listening to explanations on the mechanics that drive each shot.
“If I were to give you a book on how to ride a bike, and you read it over and over again and understood every technical detail, you still wouldn‘t understand how to actually mount a bike and pedal it. Sometimes you just have to do the activity,” explained Whelan. “With virtual technology, you can.”
Another company, the Virtual Reality Learning Experience, is introducing this technology to schools throughout North Carolina. Founder Mike McArdle travels school-to-school with headsets and conducts live VR demos.
“A lot of people don’t know about the technology and don’t know what the technology can do for them. So there is a huge educational component,” McArdle said.
Some schools co-develop customized programs. For one school, McArdle collaborated with Bin Software on the development of “6,000 Moons,” a program about space satellites orbiting Earth. For another school, McArdle offers the experience of a “tour” of a cave filled with Neolithic art, called “Painted Cave” and created by Elyse Bromser-Kloeden of EightfoldVR.
Melissa Cox, a librarian at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, remembers McArdle’s first demo at her school. McArdle gave the kids headsets that played Drash’s “Titans of Space.”
“The kids all said they had never realized just how big the planets were, or just how far it is from one planet to another,” Cox said. “It does really enhance their understanding of things.” Her school is looking to incorporate this technology into its summer programs, she said.
Teachers in Wake County, North Carolina, have decided to go beyond just using VR: They want to teach kids to become programmers. The Wake Education Partnership, a coalition of business leaders and educators in Wake County, enlisted McArdle’s help, and together they established a first-of-its-kind coding course at Wake STEM Early College High School in Raleigh.
“We want them to see the wonder of possibilities for entrepreneurial endeavors that virtual reality can provide,” said Teresa Pierrie, Wake Education‘s director of programs.
Immersive’s and Virtual Reality Learning Experience’s programs will work on the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset that has just become available (on March 28) for $600; or on the HTC Vive, a headset that debuts on April 5 for $800. The customer plugs either headset into a VR-enabled computer to view programs. That computer will have to be very powerful, however — and will probably cost $1,000 or more.
Clearly, these systems are not cheap. But Whelan forecasts that in another five years, the $1,000 computer might drop to $500. A few years after that, users may no longer even need computers; their headsets might stream content straight from the web.
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Meanwhile, basic virtual reality is now available for less via the Google Cardboard glasses, which are only $20 apiece. Tours of Paris and Istanbul, for example, are offered through Google’s Streetview on the Cardboard.
Just don’t expect an Oculus-like experience. Cardboard’s images will be immobile and not interactive. Still, the Google Cardboard offers a taste of VR and does so for little money.
“For the cost of one HTC Vive, you could buy 40 Google Cardboards,” said McArdle. “You have to weigh the ratio of how many students you can put through this stuff, to how much you’ll pay for each headset. And even in its limited form, Cardboard still has huge advantages over traditional learning. It’s still super fun.”
This article has been updated.