VR and Education Highlights from the VR for Change Festival 2017
Finally, here is a late follow-up post with my thoughts on what I saw at the VR for Change Summit in New York City on August 2nd. Overall, it was quite encouraging to witness the dedication and innovation that exists in this arena. While money and funding issues are always lurking beneath the surface, many of the individuals and companies exhibited a belief in both the vitality of VR and its potential to help humanity. From the exhibits, presentations, and keynotes on VR for social good, these are the main points that related to education.
VR is being used for preservation – Kevin Kempis from Isobar Nowlab explained how cost decreases in 3D scanning technology now allow them to easily capture moments and locations in history, before deterioration or vandalism can erase them. He gave an example of historical religious statues in the Middle East that were blown up by ISIS. If captured in VR, those locations could still be visited.
VR democratizes creativity – Jessica Lindl, the Global Head of Education at Unity Technologies described the most important skill of the future as “creating”. How do we democratize creativity, giving opportunity and possibilities for impact to those who are marginalized? This is why the Unity software is free for students and they intend on keeping it that way. Unity also has created a global talent marketplace, Unity Connect, to help people find others to collaborate with, hire, and be hired.
VR democratizes experience – In the same vein of “democratization”, Aldis Sipolins of IBM Research discussed how some experiences were no longer limited to the privileged few. In the way that the Internet has democratized knowledge, “VR is democratizing experience”.
Design considerations – Helpful design questions from Graeme Devine, Chief Game Wizard at Magic Leap (yes, that Magic Leap) were posed even though the shroud of secrecy over his company’s products stayed put. Questions that they used during an in-house hack-a-thon to measure the quality of an idea/product:
- The 5 mile test: if I forget ______, would I go back to get it?
- Toothbrush test: is it something I’d use every day?
- Halo test: is it so awesome I’d buy it?
- Innovation: is it so useful/awesome I’d be sad without it?
Final helpful words from Devine: “iteration in a new medium is a must. It takes time for a medium to make a contract with the user/player–takes time to find that comfortable contract”.
VR and Empathy building – Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood described their experiences with Across the Line, a VR experience they created to show what it was like to be a woman going through a crowd to an abortion clinic. Preliminary studies showed that after experiencing the VR movie, viewers more strongly disapprove of harassment; they could support a woman getting an abortion even if they don’t agree with her decision. They even had stories of anti-abortion U.S. senators going through the experience and coming out visibly saddened by the actions of their constituents. If these results hold true, I’d consider this a pretty successful case of VR building empathy!
Fernanda Herrera, a Ph.D student at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, further reinforced the idea of VR as a “perspective-taking” tool. While this is one of the most cited reasons for VR’s potential she did give some examples of its use and the effects it had. One example was where people took on the persona of a “super hero” in VR. As a result of this experience, participants (in the short term) were more helpful than others who did not have the VR experience.
She also mentioned a VR experience currently being used in a study to build empathy for homeless people. It aimed to delve deeper into the common perception that having information doesn’t always lead to action. (Like knowing beef production contributes to climate change still doesn’t keep me from eating beef.) However, the VR experience creates immersive conditions that provide new information and make the participant feel closer to the homeless’ plight. From this, preliminary findings showed greater interest and engagement in taking action on homeless issues.
iNK Stories demonstrated an excellent experience called Blindfold, an interactive VR story about oppression of the media in Iran. In it, the player is a journalist being interrogated by the Iranian military. Interaction is novel, players can nod, shake their head, and remain silent when asked a question. Blindfold was a great VR narrative that opened the audience’s eyes to the realities of political turmoil in Iran.
VR and Cognition – Adam Gazzaley, a neurology professor at UCSF and founder of Neuroscape, expounded on VR as a way to enhance cognition, drive brain plasticity, create positive experiences, and to focus on improving people’s attention, perception, and memory.
Rachel Sibley, VP at Leap Motion, discussed how embodied cognition and the cognition ecology (where knowledge exists in mind-body-world systems) will revitalize education through hands-on learning in VR. If you’re at all familiar with their product you will understand exactly why she began with this train of thought. She referenced Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Learning” and how active learning results in the highest amount of retained knowledge. As a person who has used Leap Motion with a VR headset, I have to say that it is a very natural and immersive feeling that it provides. The only drawback, which has been since its beginning, is its limited range of tracking. For best results, your hands must be directly in front of you and in a line of sight of the tracker. It has gotten better since Leap Motion’s first released iteration, but the restricting range of motion cancels out much of the benefits of detecting the motions of every part of your hand. Couple Leap Motion with room-scale tracking and now you’re talking.
VR is connecting people around the world – In his keynote titled Portals: Walk through the Internet, Amar C. Bakshi explained his product’s ability to connect complete strangers around the world. Not a typical VR experience, users would enter a “room” (freight container) and encounter another user in a different part of the world (who is also standing in an internet-connected freight container). By utilizing elements of presence, visual stimuli, and real-time communication Portals manages to educate the user by breaking down the geographical barriers between people in different countries. It was a great idea that didn’t even need a VR headset to impact people around the world.
VR being made by youth – Two groups presented some amazing work that they’ve done with youth creating their own VR content, Global Nomads Group and Digital Promise Global. The latter put on a VR For Good Challenge and worked with 36 high schools, giving them Ricoh Theta 360 cameras, VR headsets, and technical resources. Their goal: to share your community, tell us somethings new, and prompt someone to action. Over the course of a semester, the youth developed their own 360 films, learning that VR can cultivate curiosity in its users. They also taught students design principles and challenged them to learn and discover on their own. A major (and highly applicable) skill cultivated in the project was the ability to read documentation. Finally, the group shared a walkthrough on using WebVR and AFrame, the two platforms used by the high schoolers.
Seth Andrews, the Global Director of Policy & Partnerships at Bridge International Academies, pushed an inspirational message to the audience, that VR could be an equity tool as well as an empathy tool. He urged the VR community to “create with students, not just for them”.
As we are still in the beginnings of the VR lifespan, it is important to include all voices to keep VR’s paths open. If only a few powerful people or a narrow slice of society is influencing this industry then it limits what VR is capable of. Now is the best time for crazy ideas, nothing is set in stone yet for VR. Give youth a chance to develop their crazy ideas!
With that in mind, the VR and education space is quite broad. It ranges from medical school uses, political propaganda, and a tool for youth to be creative. Within schools, creating VR and 360 environments is becoming easier and Google Cardboards are still the majority of headsets being used. It is rare, but some schools have an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive setup for their students to play with, but not much is being done with them on a larger scale. In terms of content providers and educational apps, there are still no clear front-runners (though apart from Google, Nearpod is getting mentioned more and more). To the teachers, keep experimenting! Try out VR just for yourself before tackling the responsibility of using it to teach. Rushing to use VR in the classroom just because it is fun and novel will not help it progress. However, I believe that the best and most effective ideas of VR in education will come from the students and teachers themselves.