Virtual Reality: To Boldly Go...

Whenever I heard the phrase "virtual reality (VR)", I used think of flight simulators for training pilots, or the science fiction movies of my youth, or I’d even imagine a group of adolescent gamers spending hours defeating dragons in fantasy worlds. To be fair, I guess that’s how virtual reality was positioned when we first came across it in our everyday lives.

10 April 2017

Well, that’s what I used to think before I had my very first virtual reality experience, and it was awesome! I didn’t really have any confidence that the bulky headsets would transport me to another place far away from the room I was in, or from the couch I was sitting on. After making sure that the headsets fitted snugly, all my suspicions evaporated as I was transported to the rugby pitch, standing in front of the Springboks, as the entire stadium sang our national anthem. The entire video couldn’t have been longer than 2 minutes, but the thrill of every second of it cannot be described! To be transported to a place that I know I would normally not have access to, was surprisingly engrossing.  I was sold!

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Even though I had had an impressive initial virtual reality experience, I was still curious to know what else it could be used for.  Virtual reality has been around for decades, but only now does it seem to find mainstream adoption. Shaun Wilson, co-founder of Awaken VR, says that VR is not just for gamers. He says it is unfortunate that gamers have given virtual reality a halo effect that has been tough to shrug off, but VR has many other diverse applications. Shaun explains that if you’ve never been to the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House, you can visit those places right now in the comfort of your home – and, of course, with the aid of a headset. Experiencing the scale of a structure, seeing it in 3D and fully grasping the layout of a building is no longer something you need to imagine in your myopic mind’s eye. Traveling to different destinations is now at your fingertips.

Shaun added that VR is highly effective in training simulations in fields where rookie mistakes could be lethal or very costly. Entertainment, namely movies and gaming, is taken to a whole new level. Art and design can now be experienced in a whole new way that allows the observer to intimately engage with the art. But the most exciting application for VR is when teachers use it as a tool for learning in the classroom.

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I spoke to Philip Joubert, who is the Director of STEM and Innovation at Redhill School in Johannesburg, about the groundbreaking work they’re doing by including VR in their lessons. I shadowed a class where VR was the main tool for learning. Each child in this age group already had their own smartphone, and the Google cardboard headsets were provided by Google, but cost less than R100 a pair to purchase. This allowed each child to experience VR at the same time. The school has WiFi for students, and each pupil had to download an application to access the lesson they would be learning that day. The lesson I got to witness was one where Mr. Joubert was talking about all things outer space; from space travel to astronaut training and the moon and stars. He controlled what learners could see on their devices on his iPad, asked them questions about what they had seen and experienced, and regularly stopped for short breaks to rest their eyes.

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After the lesson, I had an opportunity to chat to the students and ask them what they had learnt, and why VR was a good way to learn. Most told me that instead of having to memorise what they’ve read in textbooks, or imagine what the teacher is describing, they would be able to recall exactly what something looked like and sounded like because they had experienced it for themselves. I had flashbacks of having to copy notes off the overhead projector when I was still in school, and realised in that moment that I was witnessing the evolution of teaching and learning.

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Granted, Redhill is a very privileged school close to the richest square mile in Africa, so seeing VR being used there might not be such a stretch. The question is whether what they’re doing there can roll out to the majority of teaching institutions across South Africa and further to the rest of the continent. Philip Joubert is optimistic, and said that well-resourced schools like Redhill understood the responsibility of making the expensive mistakes with VR now, so that in future, when tech prices inevitably go down, the important teachings would allow for a wider rollout to under-resourced schools.

Graeme Lawrie, Director of Innovation and Outreach at Sevenoaks School in Kent, England, where they also use VR in their classrooms said it best when he said: “We feel certain that this technology has a distinct and unique part to play for learners of the future. Sometimes a little bit of awe and wonder is what we need to make lessons memorable!”