What if you could be part of the audience for Martin Luther King Jr.’s riveting “I Have a Dream” speech? What if you could stand in a chemistry lab and experiment without any risk of harm or danger? What if you could walk the earth millions of years ago and watch dinosaurs? With virtual reality technology, these situations could become real.
Virtual reality (VR) is a hot topic in today’s game industry, but games are only one aspect of the technology. I’ve had fun putting on a headset and shooting down ships in outer space. But VR also has the potential to enhance education in classrooms.
Steven Holtzman is co-founder of MATTERvr. He let me try an early build of their upcoming educational VR game called FIRST. Zypre came to MATTERvr with the opportunity to create FIRST as a collaboration with AMD and the Smithsonian.
FIRST puts players on the sand at Kitty Hawk and lets them witness the first-ever successful flight by the Wright Brothers. It’s a thrilling experience for not only what it accomplishes on its own, but also for what it means for the medium as a whole.
“We pride ourselves on being uniquely capable of melding the creative and technical aspects of the VR medium to tell immersive stories,” Holtzman said. “VR is far more than a traditional passive viewing experience.”
Once I finished the demonstration of FIRST, VR’s vast possibilities really started to present themselves. Events in history are just waiting to be replicated in VR. Could you imagine how powerful it would be for school kids to be put in the shoes of someone during the Civil War? Rather than just reading about it, they could experience those moments. Sports fans could relive iconic moments from their favorite team’s histories. NASA could create a realistic simulation of lifting off in a space shuttle or walking on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong.
The Details Matter
But the development can be tricky. “Details like the placement of the bench, the length of the rails, the direction that the wind was blowing—all of these details create a rich and immersive 360 degree story,” Holtzman said. “Each time you experience FIRST in the headsets, you can turn your head and find something new.”
However, Holtzman and his team aren’t limiting themselves to recreating historical events. “VR not only has the ability to take you anywhere in time and space to view historical events, it can also be used as a tool to visualize more abstract ideas,” Holtzman said. “For example, VR can provide a virtual chemistry lab where students can experiment safely even if they ‘blow up’ the lab they’re practicing in. Biology can be learned in new ways, especially for students in schools around the world where a biology lab wouldn’t be affordable.”
More examples of this are The Body VR and Star Chart. Both are already commercially available for headsets like Gear VR. The Body VR takes you on a microscopic journey through the entire human body as you learn all about different cell types and organs. Star Chart is a real-time simulation of our solar system.
For a lot of children and adults around the world, the school setting isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Distractions are everywhere. Some students just aren’t interested in listening to lectures or reading textbooks. “The moment you interact with an object, you move education from being taught by a third party to learning by doing it yourself,” Holtzman explained.
VR in classrooms may not be feasible in the near term, but it’s an ideal worth striving toward. Just like the debut of laptops and tablets several years ago, VR could be classroom’s next big breakthrough. Or as Holtzman so eloquently puts it: “The possibilities are endless.”