After years of experimentation and testing, virtual reality (VR) technology is finally coming to our homes. The HTC Vive was released on April 5, 2016 (mine is on back-order, to be delivered in June), and there are alternatives such as the Oculus Rift (released on March 28, 2016) and others available to the consumer. Although the price for these devices is still rather steep, I have a feeling that VR technology is here to stay. The experience is unlike any other, and there is already a heap of software available to play. Let us examine how VR technology can be applied to eLearning, and how a learner could benefit from such technology.
For those who are not familiar with the latest high-tech gadgetry, let’s first give an overview of what VR is, and what all the hype is about. VR stands for Virtual Reality. The set-up includes special goggles that display a separate screen for each eye – with perspectively adjusted views to give the illusion of a 3D environment. HTC Vive includes a pair of hand-held controllers. A couple sensors need to be mounted on the walls, to accurately detect your movements. The goggles receive information from your computer, which runs the VR software.
There are additional controllers available for HTC Vive, such as a pair of gloves for activities such as climbing or punching, or anything that involves precise hand movements. The gloves can track individual finger positions, so they can be used for dextrously precise simulation, such a surgery or crafting. The possibilities are limitless.
When a user puts on the goggles, they are immersed into a virtual world of whatever the software offers. They could find themselves atop a mountain, under the sea, on a death-defying roller coaster, or in a haunted mansion. The user is free to look around in any direction, and often there are various objects – or creatures – to interact with. There are many games available for the VR experience, as well as locations and scenarios, which let the user experience what it feels like to be there. An upcoming trend are 3D movies, in which the user is free to view and wander the world as the movie unfolds. An excellent example of such is the film Allumete, by Penrose Studios. You can read about it here:
How can this technology benefit eLearning? By creating an emotional response, and by bringing to the user locations, objects and experiences that would not otherwise be available. Let me give you some examples.
Everyone I have ever seen use a VR headset has had a profound emotional experience as a result of it. People take off the goggles with huge smiles on their faces; they clutch their chairs or desks as they look down into perilous depths, they react when something big approaches. It feels real. It feels more real than videogames, or movies – even 3D movies at IMAX cannot compete. This is because with the VR headset we have complete freedom of view, and can often interact with the environment. Movies, even 3D movies, are scripted and not interactive. Games displayed on a screen may be interactive, but they are restricted to the rectangular screen in front of you, and therefore do not immerse you as completely into the experience. When wearing the VR headset, the user feels like they are really there!
To put on a VR headset for the first time, in my opinion, is a similar experience to what people over a century ago experienced when they first saw a movie. It is unparalleled. This is the reason why, despite the steep price of the gear, I believe that VR is here to stay. This is also the reason why VR needs to be used as a tool for eLearning, and not just for gaming. The experience is memorable and immersive, and should be used as a tool for learning. It is well known that a learner retains much more information if they are actively interested in the subject, and it is up to educators to present it in an interesting way. VR offers that opportunity.
Through VR we are able to bring to the learner that which they might otherwise not have available. Imagine we are studying history, specifically the Roman Empire. Imagine that thoughtful educators, developers and hobbyists have meticulously recreated places from that era in 3D, and made them available for us to explore in VR. Regardless of our physical location, we could go back in time to visit Rome, including citizens in authentic costumes who we could interact with. They may speak in Latin, but English (or other) subtitles could hover above them so that we could understand what they are saying, and still have a closely authentic experience of what Rome might have been like two thousand years ago.
History and culture are not the only subjects that can benefit from VR. There are simulations possible for virtually any subject, study or training program. The only limit is the developers’ imagination.
Therefore, albeit VR is not a traditional learning tool, I would encourage educators and developers to embrace it as such, and put it to a good use.
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