HOW VR can help us learn about the world

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Is virtual reality too immersive? It’s a question that has been raised as the new technology has become more accessible to a wider audience of creators and users.”With virtual reality, rather than telling a story, you are putting someone inside a story – and usually involving them in it,” said freelance BBC VR producer Catherine Allen at the VR & AR World conference. While this high level of immersion has led some to argue for a code of ethics that addresses issues pertinent to new technology, it ignores the even stronger roles that these mediums can play in educating audiences and providing them a fuller picture on important topics.

Empathetic Media has explored issues ranging from police violence to the slums in Bangladesh to, most recently, the Colombian peace process. The “I Survived” virtual reality project centers on restorative justice in the Latin American country and focuses on making the experience as accessible and understandable as possible to a wide audience.

“Thus far we have seen a huge amount of interest in the project from a diverse range of audiences, though it is definitely our intention that the use of cutting-edge tech to tell these stories will help the subject matter appeal to a younger, less news-engaged crowd who feel that the conflict is no longer relevant – or interesting – to them,” said Empathetic Media founder Dan Archer.

On a larger scale, the new technology industry is embracing immersive and informative VR, AR and 360-degree video experiences. The VR for Change Summit, which will be held this July and August, is an example of this trend. This year, the Games for Change Festival decided to add the Summit because “whenever you see a new technology coming down the pipe, it’s exciting to see all of the hype around new types of games and entertainment and IMAX-type experiences. But the really compelling reason that anyone should care is that maybe it will actually help real people in some way,” Erik Martin told Mashable. Martin is the Summit’s curator and the former policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Obama Administration.

One of the Summit’s speaker is Gabo Arora, the founder of LightShed, which uses “the power of immersive storytelling to create positive social change.” LightShed made VR films on topics including a Liberian women who aids children orphaned by Ebola and life in a refugee camp, as in the famed “Clouds Over Sidra.” Arora was previously a creative director and senior adviser at the United Nations as well as the founder of UNVR.

“…most people have never seen an actual refugee camp,” Martin told Mashable about “Clouds Over Sidra.” “It’s sort of an ephemeral idea to most people what that actually is or what living in one might be like… Just putting someone there removes a lot of mythos about what that looks like.”

The ability of immersive technology to open up new worlds is one of the reasons it is being used as an educational tool, both in and outside of the classroom. Recent research in China found that VR improved knowledge retention and test scores. Although this is only one study focused on Chinese students, it is supported by other projects and companies in Europe. For example, Immersive VR Education is a startup in Waterford, Ireland “dedicated to creating quality educational experiences for all students.”

The Engage learning platform allows up to 30 users to interact in real time from any location. It is available for free download from Steam and the Oculus store. Image source:

Immersive VR Education has pioneered a  learning platform called Engage, which can be used for any project that involves working together in real time, from lectures to meetings to workshops. “Immersive VR Education is dedicated to transforming the way educational content is delivered globally using virtual reality technology,” said CEO David Whelan in an interview for HTC’s “This is Real” series, included below.

Of course, the larger question is how new technology can be integrated into existing school curriculum. There have been high profile stories of big companies like Google providing students the experience of a lifetime of seeing the musical “Hamilton” and “giving virtual reality tours of Alexander Hamilton’s life via its Google Cardboard Expeditions program.” Google has participated in over 500 different group VR Expeditions experiences, which rely on its low-cost Cardboard viewers and corresponding app. Despite these advances, it is unclear if these projects are sustainable in the long run.

In a recent article for The Journal, Dian Schaffhauser spoke with Colin Messenger, a senior market analyst for FutureSource Consulting. Messenger argued that it is crucial that teachers feel motivated to integrate “an ample supply of education-tailored content.” Despite the projects, articles and conferences on VR for education, Schaffhauser argued that the technology is still gaining ground in schools. She compared VR and AR technology to personal computers, which were once a luxury, but are now a classroom staple.

“…the technology is still gaining speed — residing at that sweet spot in the hype cycle where, when you place headsets on people and gently guide them to turn around to gain a full view, they tend to gasp and say, ‘Oh, wow.'”


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