May 11, 2016
If virtual reality (VR) lives up to its promise, it has the ability to become an outstanding tool to help personalize and enrich learning.

2016: The Year of Virtual Reality

I looked around the cab I was riding in. I was sitting up front, and there were men whom I didn’t know sitting in the back. We were speeding through the crowded streets of Tehran. I tensed up as we narrowly missed a roadside vendor. Arriving at our destination, we hopped out of the cab, and I found myself sitting in a crowded tea house. Sitting down, I started to relax from the harrowing cab ride, only to have a police officer point at me and begin yelling. It was at this point that I decided I had had enough and pulled of my virtual reality (VR) goggles. I instantly returned to the streets of Pittsburgh where I was waiting for my food to be prepared at the Conflict Kitchen.

2016 will come to be known as the year of VR. This year, three virtual reality headsets will be released commercially, with the Oculus Rift, the Vive HTC, and Sony’s Playstation VR bringing virtual reality and immersive experiences such as my trip to Tehran to the mass market.

The Sensorama was a machine that is one of the earliest known examples of immersive, multi-sensory (now known as multimodal) technology.

Excitement and speculation over virtual reality is nothing new. Virtual reality can be traced back to 1962 when Sensorama, considered the first VR system, was released. VR rode a steady wave of interest, which seemed to crest in 1995 when it became clear that the technology was not ready for gaming, the most likely market and use for the technology. Interest in VR was also undermined by growing interest in the Internet, which was caused many developers and investors to focus their time and shift their resources from VR development to the investment in the web. Its connectivity and online access to 3D tools looked more promising than VR hardware development, which still had a long way to go to fulfill many of the early promises of virtual reality.

Now that VR is finally maturing, its ability to put users directly into immersive experiences and virtual worlds might finally live up to the expectations that many have long held for it, potentially changing the ways we access entertainment and also the ways in which we work and learn.

I am personally interested in how virtual reality will influence learning. Reflecting on my own experience with the technology, I found that I felt as if I were transported to another city. While I did not have much control over what I did other than where I looked, the experience was powerful and believable, and it made me forget that I was standing on the streets of my hometown. Such immersion can be a powerful tool for learners, but what makes me even more excited is to think about what might happen when the technology matures to a point that learners and learning agents gain the ability to not just navigate virtual worlds, but to create them.

If we are to draw a parallel with how the Internet has matured, we might make a comparison to how websites were developed over time. Initially, website development was in the hands of skilled web developers. Over time, the tools for coding websites became more accessible as products such as Dreamweaver came to market. Today, web developers might still be needed in some cases, but platforms such as  WordPress and Squarespace allow just about anyone to create a professional-looking website at low to no cost and to do so quite quickly.

Virtual reality looks to be on a similar path. Already, the Unreal Engine 4 allows developers to drag and drop items to build virtual worlds. Tilt allows users to create 3D art in a VR space. There are even cameras coming to market that take stereoscopic 3D pictures that could used to create virtual environments.  As such tools proliferate and get easier to use, can you imagine if learners had the ability to create virtual worlds on the fly in order to work collaboratively on a project? Might we see teachers creating virtual worlds on the fly to help immerse learners in lessons, such as a trip back in time to experience history or a Jules Verne Fantastic Voyage type trip into the body for biology? Might we even see a new form of school choice whereby learners and their families create mirror school systems inside virtual environments?

Similarly, KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 4.0: Education in the Era of Partners in Code plays with the idea of using virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) to create personalized learning biomes. These learning biomes, or responsive learning environments, would use VR and AR to meld physical and digital learning environments in response to individual learners’ needs or to support a group of learners.

As virtual reality begins its long-heralded march into our lives, we need to be thinking critically about how we might harness this technology for learning. If VR lives up to its promise, it has the ability to become an outstanding tool to help personalize and enrich learning. Thinking about how we might utilize such emerging technologies is an important part of shaping the future of learning. What possibilities do you see for virtual reality in learning?

Jason Swanson

Written by: Jason Swanson

Jason Swanson is the Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. He has a strong passion for studying the future and believes that studying the future is empowering.

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