Virtual Reality Disruption

[In this Education Next article Michael Horn looks at the opportunity for Virtual Reality (VR) to change the dynamics of the learning environment. In my work with the Montour School District I’ve observed how VR can make a difference today. I’m looking at ways for students to not only interact with VR, but to create VR.]

Will 3-D technology break through to the educational mainstream?


FALL 2016 / VOL. 16, NO. 4

Picture this: A student wears a set of goggles that transport her from a classroom in Athens, Georgia, to the Parthenon, 5,600 miles away in Athens, Greece. In an interactive, 3-D world, she peers up and down each of the 17 columns on the temple’s side and examines the fluted shafts. She notes that they have no bases. It’s easy to understand the differences between Ionic and Doric architecture here: rather than relying on textbook descriptions, those differences come to life before her eyes.

Google Virtual RealityThe technology exists to make this scene a reality in classrooms across America. And the conditions appear ripe, as well, which is fueling the latest round of eager speculation about virtual reality’s readiness to break through to the educational mainstream.

The question is whether we should believe the hype.

More Broadband, More Investment

First, schools are upgrading their Internet connectivity, which is setting the stage for broadband-dependent virtual-reality learning. The federal ConnectED initiative aims to bring broadband to 99 percent of all U.S. schools by 2018, and progress has been swift. As of last year, 77 percent of schools had access, and the FCC has signed on to spend up to $3.9 billion annually to close the gap.

Second, companies are bringing new devices to market that can provide immersive educational experiences at affordable prices. And an increasing number of providers are entering the market to offer virtual reality experiences.

In March 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, a startup that offers a virtual-reality headset called the Oculus Rift. At the time, Oculus claimed its big breakthrough would be in producing a device that cost only $350—the product actually costs $600—yet would provide a 3-D, video-based experience with gyroscopes and motion sensors that would be comparable to devices that cost in excess of $10,000. Soon after, Education Week published a glowing report, quoting a teacher in Western Australia about his “awesome” experience using Oculus devices to serve special-needs students with “meditative or relaxation-oriented virtual-reality apps, such as Titans of Space, a short guided tour of planets and stars.”

In classic disruptive fashion, in September 2015 Google followed the Oculus announcement by launching Google Expeditions at a group of schools. The product consists of a cardboard viewer that costs $15, which holds a smartphone and allows students access to more than 100 virtual field trips.

The Google Cardboard viewer works with elegant simplicity. Users place their smartphone into the viewer, which houses a pair of 45mm focal-distance lenses placed an optimal distance away from the phone’s screen. With compatible apps—such as the New York Times’ virtual-reality app—the lenses create a 3-D effect, and scenes shift with users’ movements. In January, Google launched a beta app for its Android phones that allows students to use viewers to explore historical sites with their own smartphone and tablet.

Further disruption appears imminent: Raw materials and designs are for sale to enable users to create their own inexpensive viewers. And affordable copycat cardboard and plastic viewers are also on the market. The higher-end Rift is mainly associated with immersive gaming for now, despite rumors that the company may consider giving Rift viewers to schools for free.

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