Think about the last time you had that eureka feeling – that moment in time when your mind was blown. If I had to bet, you can vividly recall the entire scene. You probably were able grasp something previously unfathomable. In education, we start our students off with many of these moments. Moments like seeing the spectrum through a prism for the first time or making a baking soda volcano.
You could argue that those experiences are due to the age of students and not the curriculum itself. I disagree though. Our students end their time with us through rote memorization and a feeling of we are never going to use this in life. As students get older, these eureka moments are harder to come by. Concepts that we teach become more complex. Augmented and virtual reality can change this by letting us experience the abstract personally.
Is virtual reality just another gimmick?
Let’s start our discussion with virtual reality. It is what you will use first due to cost and development. With virtual reality, you are completely cut off from the physical world. The most immersive implementations have you wearing a headset that is tied back to a high end computer through one or more wires. Depending on the content, you might also wear headphones. The two most popular high end products are Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive.
Basic content in virtual reality can be 360 degree video. If you have ever been to EPCOT, think about the circle vision movie in Canada. Unlike that attration, a 360 degree video in VR can allow you to look up/down as well.
You probably have looked at the prices of those products, realized that they still require a dedicated computer/phone (at least for VR), and said – education can’t afford this. Right now, you are right. Cheaper way to let students experience VR would be through a mobile device with something like Google Cardboard and to pair it with content like this. Do you think students in science would remember more about Pluto from a textbook or by traveling with the New Horizons probe as it flew past? With a 360 degree video, you can look anywhere you want – at times your mind will even believe you are there. Try standing up while watching a 360 degree skydiving video if you don’t believe me. 🙂
More complex content includes fully interactive games and simulations. These range from Minecraft to SCUBA diving. In these, you manipulate the virtual world through a traditional controller or with two hand controllers. In some, you are stationary. Others track your physical movements and bring them over into the virtual world. Having tried both the Oculus and Vive, I prefer the Vive. I got a bit motion sickness using the Oculus as I was physically stationary but flying in my mind.
The beauty of virtual reality is that it removes the abstraction of numbers and provides experiences that we can’t physically have. What has more impact:
- reading that a bluewhale is 18 times longer than the average human or swiming past the whale in VR?
- being told that Jupiter gravity protects the inner Solar System from comets or using your hands to throw comets at earth only to see Jupiter’s gravity well alter the orbit?
- studying the works of da Vinci or walking through the Louvre during a virtual field trip?
Education has a bad reputation of jumping on every gimmick that comes along (usually preceded by a change of administration). When exploring new technology, I usually push for data showing a benefit. Because this technology is so new, I don’t know of any hard studies showing a correlation between student performance and VR use. In this case, that is not dissuading me from pushing for some kind of adoption. At the least, I solidly believe that it would make a wonderful incentive tool for students.
Augmented reality is the future of education
Virtual reality can let you go to places or do things that could never be done in a classroom. So why am I more excited about augmented reality than VR? Augmented reality brings the magic of virtual reality into the physical world. The most prominent example would be Microsoft’s HoloLens. The HoloLens is a self-contained augmented reality set. Currently, you wear what looks like a miniature welder visor/TRON helmet that is capable of mapping your surroundings and projecting a hologram that you can see. You can interact with these holograms and pair them onto physical objects. The HoloLens has two specific things that amaze me. First, no wires. Second, it is intuitive.
This paragraph was originally about how incredible it is to project and use holograms. Every description either seemed understated or had too many exclamation marks. Instead, here is a (blurry) picture of my wife seeing a hologram for the first time. If my memory is correct, she is seeing a puppy running around my head.
VR originated for entertainment. AR, including HoloLens, is being developed with collaboration as the cornerstone. In the near future, it is easy to see an environment where every student is wearing a device similar to this. Instructors could bring in objects to teach a point. A physics lesson could let students each build a tabletop trebuchet. Velocity, momentum, and gravity would be taught by tweaking individual components in real time. Want to see what a longer arm on the trebuchet would do? Simply extend that part of the hologram. Teachers could invite experts to a teach a lesson. AR can even allow us to speak with the past. History becomes more memorable when you have a class discussion with Theodore Roosevelt.
An early glimpse
You won’t be seeing these widely adopted for quite a while. The price point isn’t right and the management/collaboration features aren’t even built yet. I do think that there is a place for this technology in education right now though. Areas like libraries often provided the very first computers for students to use. I think that role can be embraced once again by providing future engineers the chance to use this technology now.
What your thoughts on VR and AR? Am I just a bit too optimistic? Are they just another gimmick? Or do they have ability to inspire students?