one year ago
On our way to the Future of Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, FL, we stopped at a Microsoft store in Buffalo. I had very limited experience with Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, and the Microsoft store was displaying the HTC VIVE. I really wanted to try a VR headset before the conference, so the novelty of the game would wear off and I would be able to critically explore VR for educational applications. I signed a waiver, strapped into the VR headset, and had a virtual snowball fight with some elves!
The HTC VIVE experience was extremely positive. From the second I strapped the headset in, I was in a different world. I began in a typical living room, decorated for Christmas. It looked very real as I looked around the room. I walked around, and when I got near the edge of the 9x9 square the store cordoned off for the VR, a blue Matrix-like grid would appear in my virtual world, warning me not to go any further. The game itself was gimmicky but fun. I was in a snow-fort, with stacks of snowballs all around me. My job was to pick up snowballs using the handheld motion-tracking controllers and throw them at attacking elves before they destroyed my fort. They were attacking from 360 degrees, so I had to move quickly to spin around and find them all before they got to me! It was very immersive, and I truly felt that I was in that snow-fort, dodging snowballs and attacking evil Christmas elves.
I left the Microsoft store very excited for FETC. Now that I had used VR to have fun and play games, I could stay focused on the educational uses for this new technology. I even heard one vendor at FETC was giving out free VR headsets, so I made that my very first priority. It turns out the VR company Nearpod was allowing attendees to spin a wheel to win a prize, one of which was the VR headset. Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to land the wheel on a VR headset! I was beyond excited, and couldn’t wait to explore the floor for app ideas, get home to download them, and have a experience worth blogging about!
I learned a lot about VR this week. I am forever grateful to Nearpod for gifting me my first VR headset, even though I am incredibly disappointed with it, because it started me on this quest of VR inquiry.
First, I learned there is a major difference between a VIVE or Oculus Rift-type VR experience, and the Nearpod or Google Cardboard-type VR experience. I was absolutely spoiled by using the VIVE first. That immersive, spatially-sensitive, interactive experience blew me away and showed me what real virtual reality was like. The headset I won was not at that level (or at that cost). The Nearpod VR headset is a “sit and look around” VR experience, best suited for 360 degree pictures or videos, whereas the VIVE is a “look around, walk around, manipulate your world” VR experience. The best metaphor I can come up with is that the VIVE actually takes you to a different place, and the Nearpod VR lets you look through a window to somewhere else. That was my first let-down.
The second major let-down was that I did not see any unique, effective, or interesting use of VR technology for the classroom. All vendors working in VR were operating at the superficial, “sit down and look around” level. Nearpod, who gifted me the VR headset, also sell an app for teachers where they can download ‘VR lessons’. I downloaded the app, loaded a lesson, and gave up 10 seconds later. The ‘lesson’ was a math lesson, where students step into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I sat down and began looking around. I was in the Basilica - well, I was stuck in one spot of the Basilica. I could only move my head to look around - I couldn’t get closer to anything, I couldn’t investigate one corner more closely, I couldn’t touch anything. I felt more like I was in a painting than in a ‘virtual world’. I looked over my shoulder and saw white letters floating in the air. They read:
YOU ARE IN ST. PETER’S BASILICA
CAN YOU FIND FIVE DIFFERENT GEOMETRIC SHAPES?
And that was the entire “lesson”. This form of VR is a platform of purely and exclusively consumption. The execution of this consumption is novel, because students get to put a headset on and look around 360°, but the educational application is at the same level as a textbook or a YouTube video. Students are consuming information, but not applying it to any higher order thinking. The potential for students to create using VR is massive, but I failed to see any tools for that at FETC 2017.
The most impressive and exciting application of VR at FETC was neither immersive nor headset based. zSpace (@zSpace) had a walk-in trailer on the FETC floor demonstrating their product. The product is a large tablet-computer, where users put on 3D-ish glasses and use a motion tracked stylus to interact with the computer. The glasses add depth into the computer, but also allow for objects to pop out into the space between the user and the computer. The stylus allows users to manipulate these virtual objects that appear before the user. The demo I experienced was a dissection app to be used in science classes. zSpace has created over 200 animals and machines to be dissected in this app, each with excruciating detail to create as realistic an experience as possible. I selected a pig, and the pig appeared before me, popping out of the screen! I used the stylus like a scalpel, and peeled away the pig’s skin to reveal its inner organs. I pulled out the heart, and brought it closer to me by pulling back on the 3D stylus. The heart was still baby-pig sized, so I enlarged it using the stylus until I could see every little detail of the heart wall. I was able to virtually ‘pick up’ the heart, spin it around, and examine every side of it. I added labels to each part of the organ, and was able to check to see if my label was correct. I was thoroughly impressed with the dissection app, and saw immediate educational applications.
I prefer the zSpace model of VR over the Nearpod model. Both VR programs are consumption-based - not even zSpace allowed students to synthesize or create. zSpace takes the consumption model and allows for a deeper understanding through the freedom of exploration. The ‘viewmaster’ VR limits what you can see, what you can do, and where you can go by which pre-created content is loaded. zSpace allows students to interact with real-life creations virtually by choosing their own method of exploration. Students can manipulate virtual objects, zoom in and take apart things that interest them, and work to put it all back together to apply their understanding. zSpace is a unique product in a crowded field of companies calling themselves VR. As of FETC 2017, no company does educational VR better than zSpace.
Alex Mitchell (@AlexMitch08) is an OCT-certified teacher with a passion for #edtech, continuing his education in the M.Ed program at Brock University.