VR [as in Virtual Reality] is the new big thing, they say.

Honestly, the idea of a 3D computer-generated reality has been a key aspect of cyberpunk culture, back in the 80s, and Wikipedia says the concept could even date back to the works of Artaud in 1930s.

Anyway, the real attempt to get a proper-looking VR with computers started at least in 1994, with VRML, an enhanced version of HTML which had that purpose, and went on for many years, collecting failure after failure.

Until… enter Google Glasses.

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even here, “the future” looks no more like it used to…

The original Google concept of a micro beamer mounted on a pair of glasses, able to display information directly into your eye, and coupled with sensors able to react to your eye movements and blinks, in 2013 was one of the most sensational pieces of technology ever created. People could walk around and see reality with some layers of information displayed over it, for instance walking in a museum and having all the information on the artworks that you could meet in the alleys, literally at your glance. This reality-with-something-more-on-top-of-it has been called augmented reality, and the definition really fits.

 

Hardware for VR

The idea of putting something over your eyes maybe was the missing ingredient, anyway it took over and changed the way developers would think about VR.

After a while we had the first real VR headset, the Oculus Rift (2015-16), followed by HTC Vive (2016). These are really great pieces of hardware, offering real VR experiences, with different quality according to the computers they are connected with. Hand controllers (or leap motion sensors, allowing you to use your own hands as controllers…) improve the experience even more, and have turned these devices in the most advanced vanguard of video gaming. Also Sony Playstation introduced his own PlaystationVR headset, in the same year.

BUT.

Google in 2014 has already had this great idea: what if we use our mobile phones as hardware for VR, and we just find an easy way to put them over our eyes?

I mean THIS easy:

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Google Cardboard. A VR headset made with your phone, plus some cardboard, a magnet and a couple of plastic lenses. Cost: 5 to 10 euros.

Easy means also low-cost: we all have a mobile phone (do we?) and the rest of needed materials costs 10 euros more or less. While an Oculus costs about 450€, and a Vive is about $600. Surely their specs are from a different planet but… could your school, youth center or youth project afford them?

Cardboard was the classic how-we-didnt-think-about-it-before idea, and the impact it brought is still growing and spreading. Last year Google introduced the Daydream View headset: a more comfortable, more stylish, more durable version of Cardboard, with a hand controller, for around 100€, for their top smartphone Pixel and some other top mobile models.

Even Mattel revamped their historical View-Master 3D viewer (born in 1920s!) to become a VR device – do you remember these old discs?

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Now they look different, and they work together with an app and the new Cardboard-compatible View-Master, to bring you different VR learning experiences: obviously space and dinosaurs have been the first discs to be released, and more are following.

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Apps for VR

Google itself is offering several apps or upgrade to apps, that make Cardboard very interesting in learning environments. The official Google Cardboard app includes a demo offering a VR Google Earth experience which is fantastic, allowing you to fly and walk almost everywhere in the world, from the Pyramids to your garden. It can be clearly very interesting for educational (meaning: school) purposes, but some very skilled non-formal trainers (no, I mean me!!!) are already studying ways and manners to build nonformal learning experiences out of it, to be inserted in next editions of the Dig-It up! international training course. In the same app you will find an animated exploration of the Arctic area, which set the standard for many other similar geographical VR apps. Other hints for future developers include a guided tour of Versailles and a virtual art exhibition.

Using Google Camera or Cardboard Camera apps, you can shoot photos (or even videos, with 360 degrees cameras that have been growing in number and going down in prices after Carboard release…) to be visited with Cardboard. Again, if you go somewhere and take some meaningful pic, then all your learners could explore that place, recognize it (or not…), analyze it, find some details, maybe play some game while doing it, with more points to who will get more particulars…

You can get Cardboard Camera from inside the Cardboard app, where you can also get the Youtube 360 Video Channel: an update to Youtube where either the browsing of different videos, and the videos themselves, become a VR experience.

Well, interesting, but… is it all?

Not really.

Apps like Expeditions allow a group of users (or a class…) connected to the same wifi network to explore places, museums, venues with the help of a guiding user (a teacher?). Their guide can write or underline something on the screen and all the group will see it, so you are set for classes and lectures on many subjects: interested in having a (safe) peak inside Baghdad’s National Museum, anyone?

This concept really deserves to be developed more and more, maybe allowing users to design their own expeditions to be used by their target groups. I guess this could be a killer app in VR for education –  developers out there, can you hear me? 🙂

The standard developing environment for VR, Unity 3D, is quite intuitive to use, but still difficult to master if you want to create state-of-the-art experiences. Some friends are experimenting it with kids, and we will see the results.

Some easier approaches in this direction are offered by the ThingLink platform, whose paid version allow you to edit a 360° video or image, inserting links, notes, buttons etc.- too bad this feature is allowed only in the Premium membership plan, costing $125 per month: still a bit too expensive for educational uses.

Last but not least, science-related topics, like anatomy, solar system exploration etc already have a lot of apps in the stores offering VR possibilities to learn and explore them, either for free or in paid, more detailed and curated versions.

Are you using VR in educational contexts? Want to suggest other uses, apps or platform? Do you know some other authoring tool for VR experiences? Please share your knowledge in the comments!

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