By Austin Lee — Posted on: March 30, 2015
In a previous post, I discussed the uses of wearable technology in educational settings. The examples I cited, Fitbit, smartwatches, and Google Glass, are types of wearable technologies that augment reality. They provide additional information about yourself and the world around you, changing how you perceive reality. But what about if you take that to the next step and immerse yourself to an entirely new dimension?
Enter Oculus Rift, a head-mounted virtual reality display that will be commercially available later this year. Lots of people are excited about this new and upcoming technology including developers, video game enthusiasts, technology experts, and educators. But virtual reality is nothing new, it was initially conceptualized as early as the 1960’s and entered public consciousness in the 1990’s with devices like Virtuality’s VR system, Virtual I/O’s iGlasses, and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. However the technology at the time was too expensive, too rudimentary, and too niche to reach mass appeal.
So why virtual Reality is back again now? And why Oculus Rift? Technological advances in the last two decades have made computers faster and cheaper than ever before. The first Oculus Rift prototypes developed in 2012 sold for $300 and completely outstripped similar headsets that went for $10,000 or more in the 1990’s. Perhaps even more importantly, Oculus Rift was recently acquired by Facebook for a staggering US $2 billion. With the financial support from one of the largest technology companies in the world, it seems like virtual reality headsets are going to stick around this time.
But how will all this impact students and educators? Will virtual reality usher in a new paradigm in how we learn and teach? Or will this be yet another piece of overhyped technology that comes and goes? Virtual reality has already found success in training simulations for military and professional purposes. Oculus Rift founder, Palmer Luckey, claims that the technology could revolutionize the experience of hand-on learning and even replace field trips. He claims that while there is educational value in taking children to various sites to gain hands-on experience, field trips as they are now are overly expensive and not very effective because too much time is spent on travelling, lunch breaks, and keeping kids together and safe. He believes virtual reality will solve that problem by allowing students to digitally step into a museum or exhibit without ever leaving the classroom. Virtual reality will also allow students to visit impossible locations in the real world, like a tour through Ancient Egypt or the solar system. Luckey hopes that the technology will make it possible for anyone to travel to the most remote and exotic locations on the planet without having to worry about price or accessibility.
UBC Law has been experimenting with this concept by using Oculus Rift and virtual reality technology to allow students to virtually participate in lectures in real time.
Beyond the more obvious application of simulating interesting landmarks and locations, educators are also experimenting with virtual reality to increase engagement in the classroom using a concept called Transformed Social Interactions (TSI). For example, by altering the user’s virtual experience in subtle ways, like programming the teacher’s avatar to always face the user or changing the teacher’s appearance to more closely resemble the user, researchers and educators hope that students will find the teacher more relatable, pay more attention what’s being said, and ultimately end up with an enhanced understanding of the lesson.
What will the future hold for virtual reality? How will educators be able to take advantage of virtual environments to enhance learning and teaching? That remains to be seen, but as technology advances, prices fall, and new innovations are developed, it looks like virtual reality may finally take a place in the classroom.
- Interview with Oculus Rift founder about the implications of virtual reality for education
- How virtual reality can transform immersive education in K-12 classrooms
- World of Comenius – a virtual reality project that allows students to interact with virtual models like a human body
- A visual history of virtual reality technology