For over a year, now, I’ve been following the development of and talking to educators about a piece of technology, that, in my view, could have a huge impact on learning experiences for our students. It’s the Oculus Rift. The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted virtual reality display that provides a stereoscopic, 110 degree field of view with responsive head-tracking. In other words, you put this thing on, and you’re looking around inside a digital world. Of course, virtual reality has been the promise of science fiction for years, from Star Trek’s holodecks to The Matrix. Despite previous efforts in years past, the technology simply couldn’t deliver on science fiction’s vision for virtual reality.
All that’s changing, today, though, as technological advances in display capabilities, coupled with motion sensing, and of course, faster computers with better graphics, are making the dream of immersive digital experiences a reality. Though marketed primarily as a gaming device (and what an awesome gaming peripheral!), I believe the Rift holds some pretty awesome potential in the classroom.
For several months, now, I’ve been talking about the technology and the ways I think it could impact learning. For example, imagine taking students in a virtual time machine back to ancient Egypt at the height of its glory. As you walk with them through busy streets and markets, filled with the sights and sounds of the time, imagine that your tour is interrupted by characters (played by others in this multiplayer experience) who sweep you and your students up in a playable (and educational) mystery adventure! Remember the 60’s flick, Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of doctors enter a spaceship and are shrunk to microscopic scale and explore a man’s body? Wouldn’t it be great to take your Anatomy class inside the eye or the brain? Better yet, imagine a set of tools that would allow your students to easily build and prototype models and concepts and to experience (and share) them in an immersive 3D world? As described in this article, some developers are already looking at the Rift’s potential in education, and that’s exciting!
The technology is on our doorstep and I suspect will be mainstream within five years. Rumors are flying regarding when the Oculus Rift will be released in a consumer model, but it’s already possible to purchase a developer kit. After riding the fence for months wondering whether to wait for the consumer version or buy a developer kit, I finally decided to take the plunge and it arrived this week. Within minutes I was exploring a cozy home in Tuscany and moments later, flying through the solar system in the Titans of Space demo. I even explored one of our Minecraft servers with a version of Minecraft (called, Minecrift) and walked amongst our students’ creations. The technology is amazing. But, I’m a fan-boy and a geek, so I had to see if my non-gamer co-workers would react the way I did. I fired up Titans of Space and called them down to my office. The response was unanimous, “Oh…. WOW! Oh…. This is amazing!!” The next day I took it out to one of our schools and let a science teacher try the same demo. “My students need to have this experience. This is incredible!”
So, how long until we have these in the classroom? Let’s look at some barriers. The better your graphics card and processor, the better experience you’ll have. Most of our classroom computers aren’t powerful enough to support the Rift, at least not with fluid frame rates. For a classroom implementation in the next year or so, I’d suggest a station-based approach in which three or four Rifts are paired with powerful desktops or perhaps a strong gaming laptop. (Our WoWinSchool Alienwares could handle some of the low-end demos fine.) Another issue, though one that the developers are likely to overcome in the consumer version, relates to the seemingly imperceptible differences in the time it takes between your head’s movement and the display’s updated image response. With prolonged use this can cause what’s been dubbed VR sickness, a queasy, dizziness akin to motion sickness. As one of my co-workers, who rode one of the virtual roller coasters can attest, it’s very real!
Today, I’m not the only Oculus Rift fan in the district. Everyone who’s experienced it has had a similar response. Experiencing the immersion, educators are quickly making the connections to learning. The four walls of the classroom are less of a barrier than ever!