About two weeks ago I bought a Samsung Gear VR and I am more impressed with it every time I put it on. Thankfully, my wife already owned a Samsung Note 5 so I figured what’s $99 + tax for a better experience than Google Cardboard? And much better it has been. The Oculus Home interface is useful and simple enough for the average consumer. The store has a decent number of options of games, free and paid, as well as other apps. Overall, it is a much more enjoyable experience than a Google Cardboard, an Oculus DK2 (which I still use at the lab), and if price is a measuring stick, its better than 1/8th of a HTC Vive.
Now on to education-related material since there are plenty of people out there rating VR games. First, let’s look at AltspaceVR. It was one of the first apps I saw that I knew would have educational uses simply from it being a social platform. I’ve spent about two hours in AltspaceVR, exploring jungle mazes, playing “Flappy Dragon”, attending a author’s book reading, and talking to people around the world. It is a lot of fun, albeit slightly awkward when first meeting talking robots and avatars. While most of my conversations in Altspace have been about VR (of course), it is easy to see how this could be used for educational purposes.
Imagine an online course, enrolled with students from anywhere in the world. An introductory class could be hosted in Altspace, where the teacher could welcome students, give a brief overview of the course, and then allow the students to mingle in VR. In this imaginary class it would feel quite similar to a traditional introductory classroom experience, except that the students are actually miles apart from each other.
And this is only the beginning of uses of VR for enriching online classes. Virtual field trips could become commonplace, real-time interviews (similar to the book reading I attended) would replace simple videos or phone calls, and discussion boards could be actual conversations.
Experiences like these could solve one of online schooling’s greatest perceived problems, the social isolation factor. The New York Times recently published an article about the failings of online schools and how many students dropout because they simply lose interest. Ironically, this very problem could be addressed with VR, a platform also accused of being socially isolating. By utilizing the “connectedness” and community feeling that social VR apps engender, online learners could be engaged more fully in their classes.
However, I’ll admit there is a caveat to this line of thinking. Many of the benefits I describe above are really only useful for synchronous (all students are online at the same time) online courses. The introductory class experience, discussion boards, and interviews would only work in a course where the students were required to be present at a certain time. Obviously, one of the major benefits of online learning is that you can take classes where you don’t have to be “in class” at a particular time. For these “asynchronous” classes, a solution is on the way. VR applications like VReal will allow teachers to record themselves leading a lecture, field trip, interview, etc. in VR and then students can join that recorded experience whenever they have the time. The students would still be able to enter the VR world that the teacher wants them to learn from, it would just be at a different time.
Back to my experience with the Gear VR, I was amazed at the quality of some of the 360 photos they had in Oculus Photo. Many of these photos came from 360cities.net and would be excellent images to use if a teacher was teaching about certain cities or cultures. Similar content can be had on Google Cardboard, but because most older phones don’t have the resolution capabilities of Samsung’s latest phones it won’t look as detailed.
The Oculus Video app was surprisingly a lot of fun. Seeing 360 videos from Facebook is easy and of comparable quality to watching Youtube 360 videos. What really made the app fun was watching my own videos on what essentially becomes a giant movie screen. The app even has you sitting in a fake theater (four styles are available) and it really does feel like you’re watching your home movies on a theater screen. Overall, there is not a high degree of improvement over how people normally watch videos. The big screen is cool but you can really only watch it by yourself (in Altspace you can watch Youtube videos together).
My short experience with Samsung’s Gear VR has been encouraging to say the least. For mobile VR it is a great product and sets a strong standard for competitors to measure against. The price point ($99) is deceiving since you also need to have a Samsung Note5, S6, or S7 (edges too) and these go for $350-800. For this reason, it seems unreasonable to think that the average public school would be able to afford a significant number of these. So though the Gear VR is higher quality, it again comes down to the low price point of Google Cardboard that makes it the more likely choice for schools that want to adopt VR. I say this today, knowing that in less than a year there will be other headsets and VR options out there. By then, hopefully high-quality headsets will be plentiful and schools will be willing to make larger investments in VR.