It is nearly a quarter century since Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash, and exactly thirty years since William Gibson gave us Neuromancer. These two cyberpunk novels, along with the films Blade Runner and The Matrix, triggered the consensual dream that reality would merge seamlessly with a computer generated virtual reality in which our avatars had superhuman powers. Riding this wave, many educators were drawn to Second Life. But Second Life is resource-hungry, and it kind of coincided with the move away from desktops towards laptops. So, firewalls, capped data accounts, slow networks, inadequate processing power, and smaller screens caused interest to wane. While games and virtual worlds engage us deeply, our experience is still constrained to a flat screen; true immersion continues to elude us.
But there is a change coming, and it is being brought about by faster processing, better screen resolutions, cheaper hardware, and the sheer genius of a generation of young entrepreneurs.
Key to this change is the re-discovery of a 100-year-old technology — stereoscopy. The device we all know and love is the View-Master. The red binocular viewer with the lever on the side for advancing the circular disc never ceases to give pleasure. I dug out ours, and looked through Muppet Treasure Island, and Thunderbirds. The View-Master is a useful object to think with, but all it delivers is a still image with an illusion of depth. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t go far enough.
I searched around and found the FOV2GO system from University of Southern California, also the Hasbro MY3D system. Both slot an iPhone into a binocular viewer. I acquired the Hasbro MY3D viewer because it was easily available on Fishpond at a cost of just $25. When I couldn’t find the advertised apps for the Hasbro I tried the Tales from the Minus Lab app from USC. The result is a powerful illusion of moving around inside a 3D world. I have to say that the first few minutes caused me to go, “Wow!” and, “This is incredible!” Then I started to feel a little motion sick, which is common in virtual reality environments.
I’m into pretotyping (pretotyping refers to the art and science of faking it then making it), in the way taught by Alberto Savoia. While I do my discovery, my early thinking, I’m going to pretend I’ve got the real deal. Then I can make mistakes and take wrong turns quickly and cheaply until I have found my way. Once I have a design that can be expressed as a clear brief, and raised enough money to partner with a games designer, then I’ll acquire the $300 developer kit for Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift. It’s reported in this month’s IEEE Spectrum magazine that the U.S. Navy just bought one, so it’s considered to be serious kit. I know what I’m looking for: a compelling virtual world in which students — instead of reading a text book, or perhaps in conjunction with reading a textbook — can run simulations of learning episodes. In these spaces they can change the parameters and learn by going, “What if?”
Ten years from now I’m sure such things will be commonplace; teachers will work with learning technicians to create authentic scenarios, and the $100 headsets will just be lying around in the modern learning environments the students inhabit. No-one will give it a second thought, but right now it’s still one of the challenging frontiers of ed-tech. And the challenge I'm putting forward here is not to seek funding for some behemoth project that will take a year and either succeed or more probably fail in some spectacular way, but to spend a little time seeing what Alberto Savoia has to say about pretotyping, and kicking off with some light, agile, low-stakes thing. And then sneak it up on your students and just see what they make of it. This is a community of practice, and we love to share. Please tell us about your experiments and how they go.
- FOV2GO Quick Start
- Buy Hasbro MY3D on Fishpond
- Oculus Rift
- EDtalk: Virtual worlds teaching and learning and socialising