Virtual Reality Goes to School
Long viewed as a technology that might someday help schools, virtual reality is making inroads in classrooms today.
By Brian Nadel
When it’s time for seventh graders in the life sciences class at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School to dissect a frog, they head for the school’s computer lab. With a dozen zSpace 300 workstations, the kids pair up, don 3D glasses, and grab tethered pointing styluses to explore the inner workings of a virtual frog with organs that appear to float in front of the screen.
“Our zSpace labs have 12 screens,” says Joyce Barry, chairperson for the K–12 science, research, and technology department at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District. “The students gather around the screens and explore the subject, whether it’s biology, electricity, or physics.”
The magic of the zSpace 300 is that students can not only rotate and zoom in on the liver or heart, but they can see accurate representations of nerves and blood vessels in vivid virtual reality delivered on the 300’s 24-inch high-definition screen. As students move their heads around to get a better view, the images move in response. Think of it as the equivalent of a physical dissection without the queasiness or the acrid smell of formaldehyde.
While VR is commonly thought of as a platform for sports or gaming, it has the power to visually teach biology, geometry, and physics, as well as transport the class on virtual trips to faraway places. In many respects, it’s the new frontier for schools and the next logical step in education technology. Imagine a class walking among Roman ruins or exploring the inner workings of atoms—all without leaving the classroom—and you get an idea of its potential in schools.
Virtual reality works by tricking the brain into thinking that a flat screen is actually a 3D landscape by mimicking the body’s depth perception. Slightly different views of the scene are sent to each eye where the brain stitches together its own reality. The key is that it includes depth, turning a flat screen into an immersive 3D landscape.
At a time when many school districts still can’t afford to equip each student with a computer to learn with, the problem for VR adoption is cost. The zSpace 300 is an all-in-one desktop system with a 24-inch HD screen, Core i3 processor, high-performance graphics, and 8GB of RAM. A lab with 10 systems costs $21,995, including software, installation, and professional development. That’s more than three times the cost of outfitting a class of 25 students with Chromebooks.
But, says Barry, “it’s worth it when you see the flash of recognition and engagement it creates. Because everything looks realistic, students retain much more than [they do when] reading about it in a book or seeing it on a flat screen.” Currently 400 districts in the country use zSpace to teach everything from science and technology to art and history.
A less expensive alternative is to use smartphones housed in ingenious carriers, like Google’s Cardboard, to create personal VR landscapes. The Cardboard phone holders cost about $15 each and are nothing more than lenses mounted in fold-together cases made of—you guessed it—cardboard. You can also get more rugged plastic ones for about the same cost on Amazon. On the downside, it’s only available for Android phones, although Google engineers are working on an iPhone version.
“It’s an inexpensive entry point for virtual reality,” explains Ben Lloyd, a technology teacher at Highland Park Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. “Eighty percent of my eighth-grade class has phones that can be used, and the software is free.” (Lloyd has one full class set of VR phone carriers.)
The next step up is Samsung’s $100 Gear VR. Like Cardboard, there’s a place to snap in a smartphone, but the part that touches your face is padded, and it has creature comforts like straps to hold the headset in place. They’re much heavier and might be too big for small students, and they only work with select Samsung phones, like the Galaxy S5 Note, and the S6 and S7 families.
360-DEGREE WORLD VIEW
It’s all in the software, and Google’s Cardboard app works by splitting the phone’s screen in half, with each image aimed at one of the viewer’s eyes. The key is that as you move around, the headset senses motion and changes the view for a 360-degree wrap-around look.
With a much lower investment than dedicated VR hardware, sales of these head-mounted displays have been forecast by Gartner to rise from 140,000 last year to as many as 6.3 million units in 2017. A great many of them will end up in schools.
It’s just the start, Lloyd notes. “The hardware is way ahead of the software. It needs to catch up with compelling educational apps. We’ve had to make it up as we go along.” For students, he sees VR’s role in everything from science simulations to creating virtual plans for 3D printing.
Of course, teachers and students can go beyond off-the-shelf apps and create their own VR content with Samsung’s Gear VR camera. No bigger than a golf ball, the $350 camera takes in a 360-degree view of the world with a pair of 180-degree cameras whose output is stitched together into a VR landscape on a phone. For instance, the VR cam can be mounted on a bicycle’s handlebars to demonstrate how bicycle wheels self-balance or on a pole for a walk through an art museum.
Google Expeditions is part of that effort with several dozen virtual field trips “that go beyond the standard ways students learn,” explains Jennifer Holland, program manager for Google Apps for Education. In addition to a trip to the North Pole, there are expeditions that explore coral reefs as well as the International Space Station. Each has several questions and answers for classroom discussion.
The latest expeditions look inside the human body. “They include exploring the respiratory system by traveling through the nose, mouth, trachea, and lungs, or exploring the circulatory system so students can see firsthand how the blood flows through the body and organs,” Holland says.
For a class studying the solar system, the Titans of Space VR app is a must-have. The free app is available only for Androids and takes the class on a tour of our solar system’s planets and moons with a virtual spaceship. Along the way, there’s size and distance information on the celestial objects for the kids to absorb.
More down to earth, using either Cardboard or Gear VR equipment, YouVisit.com can provide the class with a tour of the Louvre’s art collection and its architecture. YouVisit has also set up virtual tours of over 100 college campuses, potentially saving high school seniors time, expense, and school days missed by going to see their top college picks. After loading the app on their phone and donning a virtual reality headset, any student interested in Princeton, Harvard, or North Carolina State can take a virtual stroll around the campus without ever leaving school. After they’ve taken it all in, including the dorms, athletic fields, and library, they can schedule an in-person visit when it’s time to cross over from the virtual world to the real one.