Virtual reality (VR) technology is starting to stir lots of enthusiasm is some classrooms throughout the globe. Outfitted with special headgear known as VR viewers, K-5 and university students are getting 360-degree views of scenes they either couldn't or probably wouldn't ever see in real life. When will VR arrive in your kids' schools?
As a parent, you might have heard about VR, or even seen it in action with your kids, since the same types of VR products that are now trickling into schools are pouring into retail stores. Over the past 18 months or so, manufacturers have inundated the consumer market with VR viewing products ranging from Google's Cardboard viewer, list priced at around $30, to high-end HTC Vive and Oculus Rift systems, which go for around $600 each. Other VR viewing products you can buy today include the Samsung Gear, Mattel's View-Master VR Viewer, and the Sony PlayStation VR, for example.
Still, only 2 percent of teachers in the US have used VR in their classrooms yet, although 60 percent are interested in making it "part of the learning experience," according to a recently released survey by Samsung, maker of the Gear.
Manufacturers and VR content developers are getting very busy with introducing VR in schools. Meanwhile, VR is a hot topic at national teacher conferences.
While your children might not be among them, kids in some classrooms are already using VR to do things like visiting the Great Pyramids of Egypt up close, examining human anatomy, and even building their own VR viewers in DIY projects.
In May of 2015, Google started putting a big push on education with Expeditions, an initiative to provide Cardboard viewers, VR "virtual field trips," smartphones, teacher tablets, and WiFi routers to classrooms. During its first year alone, Google helped to take 1 million kids in 11 different countries on these virtual field trips. The VR content includes 360-degree panoramic and 3D views annotated with points of interest, details, and questions.
"The students had all heard about virtual reality, but none of them had experienced it . They absolutely loved feeling as though they were physically present in front of Mt. Everest or the Burj Khalifa," said Aditya Vishwanath. member of an advisory team that helped a teacher in Mumbai, India to use Google's toolkit.
"The content available via Expeditions included 360-degree images or graphics of famous landmarks around the world, various landforms and animal ecosystems, and virtual tours of cities and museums." The classroom also used Google's VR views of the human nervous system and digestive system, he told Techwalla. Vishwanath is a junior majoring in computer science at Georgia Tech.
The teacher in Mumbai has integrated these VR views into lessons on history, geography and science for sixth- and seventh-graders. As their name suggests, the Cardboard viewers are made of cardboard. The viewers are also equipped with special 3D lenses. Kids insert smartphones into the viewers, and the 360-degree images are transmitted to them over WiFi from a teacher's tablet.
Unlike conventional course materials such as 2D photos and movies, the VR scenes are designed to be immersive, making kids feel as though they're actually part of the scenes they're viewing. By moving their heads, they can change what they're looking at.
The view of the Burj Khalif also wowed children living in the pancake-flat town of Eagle Grove, Iowa, said speakers at Google I/O 2016. This skyscraper in Dubai is now the tallest structure in the world.
Children staying in hospitals have temporarily left their troubles behind by virtually "diving" down into the Great Barrier Reef to do close-underwater explortions of the bottom of the ocean floor.
Where would your kids want to go if they could? To other constellations in outer space? Back in time, to the settling of Jamestown or the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
In May of 2016, Google launched a second year of VR classroom research, announcing plans to partner with app developers and game designers, and to pursue new types of VR content, such as career explorations, virtual visits to colleges, and VR trips into the past.
VR Spurs Kids To DIY
The project in Mumbai began in June of this year. The students in Mumbai are very poor, according to Vishwanath. Still, most families own at least one smartphone. Kids got so enthusiastic about the Cardboard views that they brought the content home with them so share it with parents, siblings, and friends at other schools. Eventually, the students taught themsleves to make extra Cardboard viewers.
"The presence of the Cardboards encouraged students to try and design their own viewers, which they did. This task -- which started with two students spending a Saturday afternoon in school cutting out shapes from recycled pieces of cardboard and looking up YouTube tutorials to design the viewers themselves -- was so successful that eventually everyone in all grades in the school was making their own viewers," Vishwanath said, in an email to Techwalla.
"Students would teach one another to make these viewers. Lenses, for example, were made by cutting transparent plastic bottles in circular shapes and sticking them together, but a couple of students also purchased a pair of lenses for $1. This making 'movement' inspired students to look up more DIY activities online and everyone personalized their viewers by adding stickers and coloring them," he recalled. Other classrooms at the school began using the VR content, too.
Other Classroom Projects
Google isn't the only company to be working with schools on educational VR content. For instance, a company called Immersive VR Education has teamed up with the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland to build an emergency room simulation app named ERVR. Using the app, medical students put their knowledge to the test when faced with treating a road incident victim.
Immersive VR has also created a historical experience called Apollo 11 -- available for sale to both schools and consumer households like yours -- which lets people of all ages experience NASA's first manned flight to the moon.
Within the documentary-style Apollo 11 experience, you can use a 1960s TV to watch an historic speech by President John F. Kennedy about the US race to space. You can take a virtual seat in the cockpit of the Apollo 11. In listening to the words of Buzz Aldrin, you realize that astronauts saw the moon voyage as was so important that they risked their lives with only a 50 percent chance of mission success. Apollo 11 runs on the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Oculus DK2, and PlayStation VR. A second potential bluckbuster, Titanic VR, is now in the works at Immersive.
Another content provider, Eon Reality, has worked with a special needs school in Singapore to co-develop modules on daily living skills like crossing the road and taking a bus or train. These VR simulations are aimed at letting special needs kids practice travel skills in a risk-free way before going out and performing these tasks in the real world.
How Might VR Change Learning?
When VR does arrive at your kids' schools, how might it impact learning?
Teachers are beginning to work with VR in lots of ways. That's the word from Charlene Bluhm, an educational consultant who attended two educational conferences this summer -- International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and Serious Play -- where VR was a major topic of conversation.
"I was amazed at the depth and breadth of subject areas educators were creating. VR works well for more than just virtual 'field trip' type experiences, and there are applications for all ages/grades," said Bluhm, who heads up C. Blohm & Associates, in another email to Techwalla.
Google believes that kids learn best by "doing," according to speakers at the I/O conference in May. Under this theory, children retain -- or keep -- more knowledge in their heads through virtual experiences than by simply cramming facts into their brains in prepping for an exam.
Experts tend to agree that VR works much better when used within the context of a lesson plan in a subject area, rather than as a standalone experience. Some also point to significant barriers they say must be overcome before the technology goes mainstream in education.
Bluhm told Techwalla that, at the Serious Play conference, "The successful programs the educators talked about included a healthy mix of both regular instruction and [VR] experiences. Doing research and immersing students in the subject before the experience made the learning more meaningful."
Teachers taking part in Google's Expeditions have used the Great Pyramids view in a variety of ways. An elementary school teacher used it as part of a math lesson on finding the angle of a triangle. A high school teacher integrated the view into a lesson on hieroglyphics as a form of communications. A college professor took students on a virtual fieldtrip to the Pyramids as part of a lesson on Egyptian art and architecture.
In Mumbai, the advisory team worked with the teacher to help her select VR views that would work well with the lesson plans she created, according to Vishwanath, who is working on the project under the advisement of Professor Neha Kumar at Georgia Tech, in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Kam and Jim Ratcliffe of Google.
"For example, the sixth graders had a history lesson on the Indus Valley Civilization that described the history of the place and the archaeological ruins that exist today. The teacher integrated the Machu Picchu field trip into this lesson as supplementary content to extend the general knowledge of the students and facilitate a compare-and-contrast exercise between two ancient civilizations," the Georgia Tech student told Techwalla.
In the Samsung survey, 68 percent of teachers said they want to use VR to supplement course curriculum, so that students will better understand course concepts. They'd like to show the students a chemical reaction for a science lesson, or let kids watch a book's video trailer for a literature class, for instance..
A majority would also like to use VR to simulate experiences (such as flying as the Wright Brothers did in 1903), to travel to distant world landmarks, and "to explore otherwise inaccesible locations, like outer space or the interior of a volcano."
When Will VR Get to Your Kids' Classrooms?
Although VR might start making the scene in your kids' classrooms at any time, large-scale adoption could take a long while. Some reasons are related to the technology and others to the nature of the educational field.
More content and better hardware are both needed, experts say. At the recent Google I/O conference, speakers from Google acknowledged that VR viewers used in classrooms should be both affordable and durable.
"While the [Cardboard] viewers are inexpensive, there is some viewer design work needed to improve their overall usability," Vishwanath told Techwalla. "They can be made more comfortable to wear and use. In addition, there were calibration errors with the phone, and the Cardboard viewers would wear out due to rains and/or poor maintenance."
The school in Mumbai would lke to see more science content such as 3D models of the solar system, diagrams of human organs, and processes like the water cycle and wind/water currents. Undoubtedly, other schools have their own wish lists.
As a next step, the team in Mumbai looks to "investigate different ways of creating and curating VR content in addition to designing different, potentially more usable, viewers," according to Vishwanath.
Yet VR content development can be costly, and the market is still niche, observed Lee Wilson, principal consultant at Headway Strategies. US schools spend 70 to 80 percent of their instructional materials budget on English and math.
In the Samsung survey, teachers named science, social studies and history as the three areas that can benefit most from VR.
Needed: Industry Standards, 'Gold Standard' Research
As another drawback for use in schools, VR software and hardware are not yet standards-based. For example, your kid can't run VR views designed for Google Cardboard on a Samsung Gear.
"In education, until there is compelling standards-friendly content, you won't see a significant uptake in adoption of the hardware," Wilson told Techwalla.
Beyond that, school systems want to see "gold standard" research before making large investments in new types of materials.
"Bottom line, it is very early days for VR in the classroom. Some interesting exploratory work is being done but it will require grant support for the foreseeable future," according to the analyst.
"That will lead to research findings in two to three years that will help point the way forward. We will see isolated uptake that will get a fair amount of press because it is cool, but broad market level adoption is years away."
Meanwhile, there are certainly plenty of VR viewers and apps that you can get for your kid to use at home -- either for learning or just for fun!