The Oculus Rift is a highly anticipated head-mounted virtual reality display being developed by Oculus VR, set for commercial release in 2015. With development kits having been sent out since 2012, a whole host of content has been created and previews shared online, giving us a taste of what’s in store when it finally goes on commercial release.
Many in the industry agree that the Rift is set to have a massive impact on the world of gaming – but what about education? In recent times, education has been gradually adopting technologies that
originally gained mass popularity in the consumer market into everyday classroom life – most notably
tablets. Can we expect virtual reality to be the next technology to transform the way that pupils learn?
Using the capacity to create any virtual environment in front of your eyes, it’s easy to see the potential that the Rift has to deliver immersive experiences that are not only entertaining but also educational. The possibilities are pretty much endless, so there’s a real opportunity to create experiences that are not only relevant to the curriculum, but can also transform learning in new and innovative ways.
Virtual reality is already used in many areas of professional development, including flight simulators for pilots and military training scenarios, providing the obvious benefits of being able to experience and learn how to deal with high risk situations in a realistic, but safe and controlled area. However, the potential that virtual reality has in providing immersive educational experiences can go right back to use in the primary classroom.
Working on the widely-accepted assumption that children learn best by doing or being, virtual reality possesses a scarce ability to maximise learning by letting pupils ‘be’ or ‘do’ anything imaginable – without having to leave the classroom. According to Rabindra Ratan – a professor at Michigan State University who studies the psychological effects of video games:
“In the case of the Oculus Rift, there is a higher level of presence or telepresence in the psychological experience of the medium, which is good for learning because it makes people pay attention and directs attention in ways that are more deliberate.”
Students will therefore be more likely to retain information learned during a virtual reality experience, and be able to relate experiences and topics more closely with the real world(1).
Experts also believe that experiencing learning through virtual reality could also have benefits for children with special needs. Mathieu Marunczyn – an ICT leader at a school in Australia – recently commented that he felt that role-play environments in virtual reality had a lot of potential in helping children with anxiety issues and autism. Experiencing a situation or interaction in a virtualenvironment first could guide them through what to expect when they approach it in real life, and help them feel ready to deal with that interaction or scenario(2).
Some developers are already exploring the idea of creating apps for the Rift that are educationally driven. Demos of these apps are available online, and many can be found on the Oculus VR website. There’s already an amazing range of experiences available; users can walk through Ancient Egypt, explore the underwater world or visit a museum without leaving their seat. We’ve picked out some of the best ones so far:
Step into a spaceship, take off and begin exploring space. The demo is limited to the ‘local vicinity’ of the Earth/Moon system, but the full version will allow you to explore all of the planets. Imagine being able to teach pupils the order of the planets and their relative size, while they’re actually ‘flying’ around the planet itself.
This app uses Google StreetView to create a 3D experience, enabling you to ‘walk’ and look around famous landmarks and feel like you’re really
there. People are beginning to create lists of places you could visit. It’s a relatively simple concept, but imagining the possibilities of this app when combined with other sources such as Google Earth, and the ability to view past Google StreetViews, you get an idea of how powerful a tool it could be in education.
The developer of this app has created a virtual Ancient Egypt in which the user can see the houses that people would’ve lived in, the food they ate, and also see the Pyramids before modern Cairo surrounded them.
The app demos we’ve highlighted above are not only great experiences in their own right, but also give us an idea of what’s possible. If an app has already been created that allows the user to walk around a virtual Ancient Egypt, the only limit is imagination when it comes to what other worlds from the past could be experienced in the coming months and years. Actually ‘being there’ could completely transform the way that students learn about historical events and places.
There are challenges associated with adopting virtual reality technology into education, though, the most obvious one being cost. In an interview with Eurogamer, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey estimated that the cost to users of a Rift headset would be around $200 to $400 (approximately £120- £254 at time of writing) depending on a number of factors. While this is cheaper than most laptops and some tablets, there are a lot of additional
costs associated with running the Rift. Most notably, schools would need a room full of high performance PCs in order to give the user the best, most seamless experience possible. With this in mind, it may be a few years before these platforms become affordable for a school’s budget, and therefore adoption of virtual reality will be gradual.
Overall – and despite the challenges – it’s easy to see the impact that technology like the Oculus Rift could have on education. As long as the capability is there, more and more engaging content will be created, which will aid and enhance learning. It could create the opportunity for students to experience something they wouldn’t have been able to before, and learn in an infinitely more engaging environment. It could create a generation of students that think and create in entirely new ways. It’s important though that – like other technologies – virtual reality is adopted into education in a way that concentrates on how children learn, and that educators fully understand how to use this technology to its full potential.