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In working with faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education, we're often asked, How do you get started with VR? What will be the impact of immersive computing on education? What are the real benefits for students beyond the novelty factor of a new technology?
Thinking through these important questions, it is helpful to reflect on the work of the New Media Consortium's Horizon Report. One of the major developments across the educational spectrum is the idea of students as creators; we see this as one of the most exciting areas in the use of virtual and augmented reality. Students today aspire to do more with technology than simply be passive consumers of a new media form. The compelling nature of immersive technologies inspires them to become creators and active explorers in the making of a new medium. For this post, we'd like to explore some of the early and exciting student projects in this area.
Students Connecting with Their Community
At Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas, Professor Joyce Zhou works with marketing students to help them develop VR experiences for their capstone projects. Students use WebVR and the InstaVR platform to develop mobile and web-based applications relating to regional businesses, a nonprofit, and a local nursing home. By creating engaging 360° tours, students are not only learning these new tools for themselves but are also helping local organizations see the possibility of VR for marketing and public relations.
Turning Imagination into Reality
Environmental design majors at Texas A&M University recently staged a pop-up exhibit at the Langford Architecture Center. Under the direction of Vahid Vahdat, visiting architecture lecturer, students were asked to create a completely imaginary space in a virtual environment (see figure 1). As Vahdat noted:
The extreme abstraction that VR offers provides an unexplored mode of design thinking, allowing students to redefine the viewers' perceptual relation to space.
And as one of the students, Elise Werner, described it:
I can now inhabit a space that was otherwise residing in my mind.
The projects were experienced by other faculty at Texas A&M and by members of the HKS and Fentress Architects firm.
Journey Through Our History
At Brown University's Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, virtual reality artist-in-residence Adam Blumenthal worked with 14 undergraduates to use virtual reality to examine the Revolutionary War–era Gaspee Affair. The little-known 1772 incident in which colonists burned a British ship is often seen as a precursor to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Blumenthal's independent study group used historical research, actors who recreated historical scenes, 3D modelling, and animation. They made extensive use of Google Tilt Brush, a room-scale 3D creativity tool, for storyboarding the project in virtual reality.
The students came from a wide range of disciplines, from computer science to visual art. They took on a variety of roles, from learning how to use the Google Jump VR camera (a rig with 16 GoPro cameras that shoots stereoscopically) and VR production techniques to writing the script and directing the actors (see figure 2).
The completed project will be used to teach middle and high school students about the event and give them virtual access to the collection of artifacts at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
For Blumenthal, one of the goals was to help students think critically about the material. He noted:
Taking the experience off the pages of a textbook and putting the students in these environments and conveying the knowledge…it's going to be really powerful.
Students as Change Agents
Closer to our location in New York City, we were recently invited to speak at the VR AR Dev Day at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn. Organized by the InnoVention Society student club, the event included our morning talk on "Creating the Future with Immersive Technology" and an afternoon workshop on "Prototyping and Visualizing Stories in VR/AR." What was so remarkable in this gathering of 200-plus students, alumni, artists, and AR/VR developers was the level of enthusiasm and creativity.
Our workshop in the adjacent NYU MakerSpace area turned out to be one of the most engaging sessions we have facilitated in a long time (see figure 3). Students had questions on AR/VR and MR tools and apps, but the real enthusiasm came during a design-thinking exercise on prototyping narratives and immersive storytelling. Students developed proposals for new games, VR to solve online retail shopping challenges, new entertainment experiences, and applications for K–12 learning. The energy and excitement were remarkable, with students feeling empowered to transform how we will work, learn, live, and play in the future.
Sparking Students' Creativity
Here are some key takeaways from the projects that we have seen:
- Let the students lead: In all of these projects, students are taking the initiative. The institutions are providing the technology, the space, organizational vision, and in some cases, academic credit. At NYU Tandon, students organized the entire conference, doing publicity, registration, catering, and scheduling (see figure 4). They brought in a diverse group of speakers from academic, tech, and startup backgrounds. The event included TED-style spotlights, talks, workshops, and demos.
- Don't compromise on space: Brown University's Granoff Center for the Creative Arts is designed to encourage cross-discipline collaboration. The Tandon event used the main auditorium and the flagship NYU MakerSpace. Space influences behavior and is crucial in driving collaboration and active participation. In addition, to produce VR and AR/MR experiences students need access to high-end technology and, in some cases, motion-capture studios and 360° cameras.
- Create opportunities for social impact: Many of these programs are open to the local community or have been designed to have an impact outside higher education. At Emporia State, students are using VR and 360° video to help local businesses. The Gaspee Affair VR experience at Brown University will become a resource for teaching middle and high school students.
- Showcase student work: So often in education, the work students do in a course is only seen by others in the same class. Like the example at Texas A&M, all of these experiences have a connection with their campus or larger community. VR and AR engender a level of excitement that gets students engaged with each other and encourage peer learning. It's worth it to seek out opportunities to bring this work to community events.
Many educators see VR and AR in the context of complex simulations and ways to visualize information. However, as immersive technology becomes more prevalent, students will be able to prototype and create their own experiences. These new technologies are more than training and problem-solving tools, however; students will invent new forms of interactive narratives with rich meaning that will transform our understanding and experience of the world. Inhabiting these mixed-reality worlds will create opportunities for co-presence and co-creation. The future of VR is in collaborative platforms for work, learning, and play.
When we meet students at these events, we are reminded of the words of Sugata Mitra: "It's not about making learning happen — it's about letting it happen." Create a space for students to explore immersive technology and they will design new worlds. When students shoot a 360° video or code a virtual experience and then put on a VR headset, they know they are stepping into the future. It's our role to empower them as we navigate the next wave of the Digital Revolution.
Emory Craig is Director of eLearning and Instructional Technology at the College of New Rochelle and Co-Founder at Digital Bodies.
Maya Georgieva is Chief Innovation Officer at Digital Bodies.
© 2017 Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.