Virtual Reality a Reality in K12 Classrooms

The recently concluded ISTE 2015 has yet again given us a glimpse of some of the newest innovations and concepts in consumer tech. More importantly, however, this year’s event showed yet another small but important step in VR, with Samsung and Google’s promotion of their VR concepts. We’ve known both companies’ approaches to VR as early as the third quarter of last year, but it is only now that both their devices are heading into the VR spotlight, particularly in the upcoming field of VR education.

Immersion is one of the key words that define VR. In education, the immersion usually takes the form of hands-on exercises, which helps a student get firsthand experience into whatever subject the class is currently about. This has been an important topic in technologies implemented for K12 classrooms as of late. This is because the wide variety of subjects in lower grade schools could potentially make devices such as VR head mounts an indirect necessity.

There is a catch, however. Most VR devices in the last few years are introduced with rather impractical consumer prices for the average classroom. Therefore, while the upcoming consumer version of Oculus Rift, or even Project Morpheus, can indeed provide such immersion and firsthand experience, implementation would be an entirely different problem. This is where Samsung and Google approached the concept from a more economic perspective. Instead of being a single head mount device, a smartphone is mounted on a headset. The smartphone provides the VR screen and processing power, while the headset provides the 3-D lens and other minimal functions.

Google introduced the very simplistic Google Cardboard as a pre-concept to this. It is a DIY cardboard device that any person can set up to create the VR mount for a smartphone. There are no additional hardware functions, as all the person needs to do is use Cardboard-compatible apps with the mounted smartphone. The Cardboard concept demonstrated the possibility of building a very cheap device to experience VR. Technically, all that you need is a smartphone, which we presume is easier to acquire than a $600-$1,000 bulky, non-portable head mount.

This year, Google upgraded the concept even further with the introduction of Google Expeditions, an educational service that provides “VR field trips” to its users. Imagine simply preparing the Cardboard mounts for class. With the service’s very affordable price, each student could have his or her own unit, and the instructor could probably even do a short drill in building the head mount.

As for Samsung, the Gear VR has a very similar idea to that of Google Cardboard but with considerably more sophistication than an ordinary cardboard head mount. For starters, it has a solid build and design that will probably be similar to Sony’s Project Morpheus. Also, it has adjustment controls on the mount, such as fixed-view settings, as well as having user access options. Unlike the proof-of-concept Google Cardboard, though, the Gear VR is introduced as an eventual commercial product. It is even geared more towards entertainment, due to the announced compatibility with most default Android-usable game controllers.

Despite its classification as a tech product, the Gear VR still has considerable potential as an education-optimized VR headset. As shown during ISTE 2015, it is capable of giving users the same virtual tour of points and places as any other VR headset, with the introduction of a sample sea exploration app. This will be important in teaching, since smartphone-based VR setups can be more convenient for information access. Needless to say, setup and implementation will be harder than that of Google Cardboard, but its higher VR software optimization could very well make up for this.

There are still many other upcoming ideas in VR that can be efficiently used in education. However, regardless of which VR concept will be easier to implement in schools in the future, the age of VR is already upon us. Even if it’s not in the next years to come, the road to its widespread implementation might be just ahead of us.

We sure have come a long way since NASA introduced us to Virtual Reality more than 30 years ago.

Christian Crisostomo
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