The opportunities for virtual reality



Does virtual reality have a place in the classroom, or is it a distraction – a gimmick to lure students with exciting technology, rather than traditional learning?

The answers might surprise you. But first, let’s consider some background context about virtual reality (VR). Essentially, VR consists of computer-generated images that appear on a headset. As well as sound and images, it can create sensory experiences too – with hand controllers in place, wearers can touch digital objects, move them around and influence their digital environment.


Whilst the obvious audience for VR is gaming and immersive entertainment, the opportunities for business are huge too. Writing in TechCrunch, Sean Jacobsohn outlines the likely first beneficiaries for VR technology – among them medicine, manufacturing, engineering, real estate and, most usefully for our purposes, education.


Transformative results in several fields are already being experienced. ‘Just last month,’ Jacobsohn writes, ‘a group of surgeons in Miami was able to perform open heart surgery on a four-month-old baby thanks to VR imaging software and a Google Cardboard Viewer.’ In factories, VR is being used ‘to optimize product engineering, design, manufacturing and operations,’ with Ford using it to ‘design new vehicles, develop autonomous vehicle technologies and collaborate with teammates across the globe.’ And in real estate, ‘brokers and developers are using virtual reality tours to speed up leasing and sales.’


The uses of VR in education

In the classroom, there are several key benefits that VR can bring. The first is how it enhances learning by creating immersive experiences. ‘Much of this early foray into VR­-based learning has centered on the hard sciences — biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy — as the curricular focus and learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with dimensional objects, animals and environments,’ Elizabeth Reede, co-founder of WoofbertVR, explains. And ‘in other areas of education, many classes have used VR tools to collaboratively construct architectural models, recreations of historic or natural sites and other spatial renderings.’


It’s well-known that we learn more effectively if we experience things visually. So VR is not a gimmick; rather, it is an enhancing tool that can benefit education in almost limitless ways. ‘This global distribution of VR content and access will undoubtedly influence a pedagogical shift as these new technologies allow a literature teacher in Chicago to “take” her students to Verona to look at the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or a teacher in the Bronx to “bring” her Ancient Civilizations class to the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza,’ as Reede evocatively puts it.


Second is the way VR can teach students to work collaboratively. Writing in Singularity Hub, Jason Ganz takes this idea a step further. ‘The idea of VR education truly becomes useful when you combine VR with another disruptive technology – project-based learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching methodology which focuses students on large, long-term projects to solve real world problems.’ Ganz offers the example of tasking students with designing a sustainable building. They are graded on architectural design prowess and engineering feasibility as well as the sustainability element of the project.


What VR can do, that a classically taught project can’t do, is that it’s able to calculate, for example, the energy usage of the building. Learning by trial and error becomes enjoyable, rather than laborious, because you can keep re-working the building until it is right. That way, the student learns things that he or she wouldn’t otherwise learn. You can discover innovations by experimenting. You get to understand how the mechanics of being on site work, without having to leave the classroom. In effect, you’re getting a work placement experience, without having to leave the lecture hall.


VR could thus address the problem of students not being ‘adequately prepared for the jobs that exist in the modern, information economy,’ Ganz says. In his view, with classical education ‘students are being prepared for a world that doesn’t exist any more.’ Instead, by creating a culture of education that allows students ‘to work together to foster innovation, we will actively be creating citizens who are prepared for the challenges of the modern world.’


Consider how some universities are already using VR in this way. Writing in EdTech, Dave Doucette points to Virginia Tech, which is now using VR to ‘help researchers visualize Big Data in new and innovative ways.’ The modelling capabilities of VR have been exploited by ‘a team from the institution’s geography department [which] combined atmospheric and ground data to recreate the sights and sounds of the EF-5 tornado that ravaged Oklahoma in May 2013.’ And at the University of Maryland, similar data analysis and manipulation has been performed ‘inside the Augmentarium, a space on the main campus at College Park that combines projection displays, augmented reality visors and more.’ Here, the intention is to help generate new insights into astronomy, biology and atmospheric and oceanic studies.


Not only can VR enhance the classroom experience, lead to innovation and give students real-world experiences, it can significantly improve learning at a distance. Currently, it’s often assumed that whilst distance learning can be an excellent adjunct to classroom-based education, students will always learn better when they are in a room with a lecturer. With VR, that distinction between being in a classroom versus being in your home office becomes more blurred. As Peter Diamindis puts it in Singularity Hub, ‘Why go to conferences, school, or travel for business if you can have richer, deeper experiences from the comfort of your living room?’


Optimising the possibilities

What about the future? And what do business schools need to do differently, once they have looked at investing in HR?


Getting students to work collaboratively leads to a probable eventual outcome – social VR. We need ‘collaborative virtual reality communities which connect people from around the world and allow them to work together on real world problems,’ says Jason Ganz. ‘Social virtual reality is going to be an absolute game changer for collaboration,’ he says, arguing that it will make students feel like they are actually in the room with another person. ‘Very soon,’ Ganz believes, ‘we’ll start to see virtual reality seminars, meetup groups and hackerspaces.’


Quoted in The Near Future of VR and AR: What You Need to Know on Singularity Hub, Philip Rosedale, CEO of High Fidelity outlines several changes that he believes will influence take-up of VR over the next three years or so. Briefly, they are:


  • Screen resolution will match visual brain input. ‘There will be a moment when we can’t tell the difference between reality and virtual/augmented reality (at least with our eyes),’ Rosedale says.
  • Eye tracking will add presence and control. ‘Once you put screens next to somebody’s face, you can also watch their eyes moving.’ This means that in a VR meeting, ‘you’ll be able to make eye contact with people. It also means you can control your computer. You’ll be able to use your eye as a mouse.’
  • Face-tracking creates real appearances, not just avatars. Hardware near a face can measure and track that face. ‘This means we’ll be able to animate you at a distance, talking to somebody else with a perfect representation of your facial movements.’ Your avatar in the meeting will ‘move and express itself emotionally like you do.’
  • More benefits for distance learning. ‘If you can buy your kid a $600 virtual reality headset, and they can study five times as fast as anybody else, and they don’t have to be in a particular neighborhood or near a school to do it, they are just going to adopt these things. They are that much better.’
  • Screens will become obsolete. Future devices ‘will allow you to view a virtual TV anywhere, on any wall, or a mobile phone screen on the palm of your hand, or the air in front of you,’ which means that there will be no need to carry ‘clunky glass devices in your pockets’ or even have a TV on the wall any longer.


    None of the above are sci-fi possibilities or future dreams. They are all within reach; the technology is there, and the advances are in all cases happening already in prototype or not far away. Sums in excess of $5 billion have been invested in both VR and AR (augmented reality – which we’ll look at in another article) over the past two years by every major technology company, including Google, Microsoft, HTC and Samsung. It’s not a fad or a gimmick – it’s here to stay, and it’s worthwhile for universities to develop a strategy now about when, and to what extent, they will invest in the technology.