Increasing Immersion: VR Becomes Classroom Ready

Virtual reality (VR) has been at the cutting edge of entertainment and education for more than thirty years. The technology has promised to revolutionize training and education by placing users in computer-generated environments where they can move around, interact with the environment, and feel as if they are really there. The exceptional cost of the technology however, has meant VR has only been used in highly specialized educational contexts, such as military and industrial training.

This cost limitation finally began to break in the early 2010s as mobile phone advances pushed much needed VR technology to become smaller, lighter, and more cost effective. Smaller motion sensors and cheaper mobile phone LCD screens prompted new investment and invention in the area of VR, and it has experienced something of a renaissance over the last decade.

VR fosters immersion by captivating the users’ senses. Small LCD screens cover each eye, so the user does not see the real world. Headphones provide an auditory experience which can be designed to mimic the environment—echoes for large spaces or sounds programmed to originate from exact locations in the environment. Controllers allow the user to interact with the environment, such as by picking up objects or moving through the virtual space.

Google Tilt Brush allows users to paint in a virtual 3D space.
(Google YouTube Channel)

In the world of VR, there are notable hardware options to choose from, depending on budget and classroom context. Generally, three variants of VR hardware exist: connected devices, standalone devices, and phone-based devices.

Connected Devices: High Cost but High Performance

The HTC Vive a high performance VR headset (cc-by-2.0)

The new wave of modern VR headsets began in 2016 when both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive became commercially available. These headsets provide the highest level of immersive experience through a cabled connection to a computer capable of high-end graphics. Their capabilities come with a high cost, with the headsets priced around US$600, and require a computer with robust graphics capabilities, which typically start at around US$1,200, making these headsets a solid choice for specialized use in a higher education setting.

Standalone Headsets: Lower Cost and Midrange Performance

The Oculus Quest requires no computer, but a WiFi connection is necessary (CC0 1.0)

Recently, the world of VR has experienced a new wave of standalone headsets. These have less computing power than their connected counterparts and do not require an expensive computer to run. Facebook-owned Oculus Quest and the HTC Vive Focus are at the forefront of the push for standalone VR. These headsets are priced around US$299, making them a more viable option for the classroom. These headsets also feature a wide assortment of educational-focused VR experiences, such as Mission: ISS or National Geographic Explore VR.

Phone-Based VR: Low-End Performance for Low-End Price

The Samsung Gear VR uses mobile tech for introductory VR (cc-by-2.0)

On the low end of the performance spectrum, VR options are still available and continue to see sharp improvements in graphics and interactivity. These phone-based headsets are largely limited to watching 360 degree videos and playing simple games with limited interactivity. Headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Go are viable options for educators looking to bring VR experiences into larger classrooms.

If VR is something you would like to bring into your classroom, check out the links provided in this post and decide which hardware best fits your classroom context.

Finally, I wanted to remind everyone that TESOL’s Electronic Village Online has begun! Among the wide array of professional development opportunities being offered is the EVO Minecraft MOOC. If you are keen to learn more about games in the classroom and specifically how to use Minecraft, I encourage you to check it out.

Until next month, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn is the director of esports at Ohio University. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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