Building an analytics layer for virtual reality

By Cole Stryker

Marcus Belingheri, a 16-year-old junior at the Marin School of the Arts in Novato, California, is excited about showing off his digital arts class’s work at the spring parent showcase, in a gallery the class is designing themselves. He’s especially looking forward to the moment when the white walls and dark wood floor varnish. That’s the sort of trick you can pull off when you’re designing an experience using virtual reality, which the magnet school class is experimenting with for the first time. “We want to do things that you can’t do in real life,” says Belingheri, in cuffed jeans and white Converse All-Stars. “In VR, the walls can drop down and suddenly you’re in a forest. If the student wants their art to be displayed in a forest, we want to be able to do that.”

One end of the classroom is lined with flat monitors, where students are learning to create and manipulate 360-degree scenes with the same software used in the entertainment industry. The other end has been cleared of desks and chairs to create a safe space for the kids to pull on an HTC Vive headset and check out their works in progress.

Teacher Howard Gersh, a former LucasArts effects artist, envisions the experience stretching beyond the arts. For their senior project, he wants his students to work with an academic teacher to create interactive VR models for teaching. “Let’s visualize a periodic table of the elements in VR,” he says. “You point to carbon, and suddenly carbon is floating in front of you, and you can walk around it or add an electron. It’s so exciting for the kids, as opposed to a textbook,” he says. It’s not surprising that bucolic Marin county is an early adopter of VR when one realizes that companies such as LucasArts and Autodesk call it home, and that Pixar, Google, and Apple are all within driving distance.

At another school in the district, a teacher explores how to use VR to help high school students visualize equations. Special education students have donned headsets to enjoy a simulation of scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an experience most of them would never otherwise get the chance to have. Other Marin students have used Google Cardboard with their own smartphones to explore the effects of climate change on the Italian coast, both above and below the sea. And this is just the beginning.

Marin County Office of Education Chief Technical Officer Dane Lancaster wants to see kids designing product prototypes within VR, like Ford engineers are doing. He’s a fan of art apps like Google’s TiltBrush, with which students create 3D paintings that the audience can walk through and admire from all angles. He’s been impressed with the technology’s ability to engage hard-to-reach students.

“We have a couple of alt ed schools that have been experimenting with VR for engaging students who aren’t typically interested in school,” Lancaster says. Once the headsets were on, even the toughest kids were into learning,” he marvels. But Lancaster’s goals for getting VR into Marin schools go beyond the wow factor. “If you take a look at job listing sites, you’ll see VR engineer and VR content creator a lot now,” Lancaster says. It’s his hope to give Marin high school students the opportunity to start training in roles that will be in high demand five years from now, whether that be as engineers or creators of virtual content.

That opportunity isn’t lost on Belingheri, who is president of the student VR club. He hopes that learning how to work in VR in art class will help prepare him for a career in engineering. “If I’m trying to create a wind turbine as an environmental engineer, and I can go into VR and look at it, and see all the different pieces, that would make it so much easier to visualize it than sitting in front of a computer screen,” he says.

Even students on less exalted career paths should be prepared to deal with VR, Lancaster says, noting that Walmart and UPS both put new hires through VR-based training already. Other schools are using VR more as a content delivery mechanism than as a tool for creation and design, especially in the younger grades. In San Francisco, middle school science students at the private Alta Vista School have walked with dinosaurs and explored the layers of the earth while trying out educational VR software from Lifeliqe, a VR company that targets mostly the U.S. educational market.

VR meshes nicely with Alta Vista’s focus on experiential learning, says teacher Toni Setteducato, and could serve as a supplement to hands-on learning and field trips. “The dinosaur extinction, the breaking up of pangaea, or the nucleus of an atom, those are the things that they can’t experience firsthand,” she says.

Hector Camecho, who used Google Expeditions to take his Mountain View senior economics students on a “Great Recession Tour” of Manhattan, also sees the technology’s potential to allow students to visit places that their school or families don’t have the funds to bring them to physically. Camecho, who is now a guidance counselor at Mountain View’s St. Francis High School, also sees VR’s potential for egalitarian experiences when it comes to college tours. “Just last week we had a mini college fair where we had about 20 schools, and 2 of them had [Google] Cardboards there with their virtual tour ready,” he says.

Although several companies, including Google and content creators such as Lifeliqe and Nearpod, make virtual and augmented reality products for the educational market, most classrooms have yet to see a VR headset. Many who do, like Setteducato and Camecho, are using equipment loaned by companies to test it out, or, like Gersh in Marin, have cobbled together a combination of donated technology with modest school budget purchases, rather than making large investments in VR technology.

Before they can tap into the potentially huge educational market nationwide, VR companies will have to help schools overcome a number of hurdles:

Cost

The cost to get kids going on VR ranges from a low-end investment of only $5 per student for a DIY cardboard viewer kit, used with smartphones kids bring from home, to $1,500 to $2,000 for a high-end workstation and HTC or Oculus headset for the kind of immersive experience Gersh’s class is working on.

One way districts may get over the cost hurdle is by pooling resources through the library. Lancaster, in Marin, is working on a plan to collaborate with the local community college to create a VR lab that both high school and college students could access.

Safety/health concerns

None of the educators interviewed for this article reported any concerns from parents about their children experiencing VR, which is perhaps surprising considering that the HTC Vive’s own product literature states that the device is not designed to be used by children. There are more questions than answers about how the exposure to VR might affect kids’ eyes and their developing brains, because there’s little to no research on the topic, Live Science reports.

“Frankly we never saw these concerns,” says Lifeliqe’s Martin Bukáček, whose title is Community Shaman. Lifeliqe makes VR experiences for the K-12 market, and Bukáček says he has seen thousands of kids try the product, with “just a couple” experiencing motion sickness or discomfort. “When you see kids coming home and telling mom or dad, ‘I was an engineer repairing the International Space Station at school today,’ we see parents really excited about their kids having experience with VR,” Bukáček says.

Quality content

Although teachers and students who try it tend to rave about their VR experiences, there still isn’t a robust content library like one would find in books and films. Developers such as Lifeliqe and Nearpod are focusing on creating content that meshes with Common Core standards, but it will probably be some time before a teacher can access an immersive experience appropriate to every lesson.

The development of that content will be key to making VR an everyday educational tool, Lancaster says. “Unless you’ve got good quality content and it’s sustainable, and you can use it and integrate it in an effective way, it’s going to be, ‘Oh hey this is cool—but what do we do with it now?’” Lancaster says.