Friday, August 26, 2016

10 ways to get started with VR in learning – a primer

So here we are at the start of a VR journey that has only just begun. The first raft of consumer devices are out there – from cardboard and cheap plastic goggles that work with smartphones to headsets with external sensors, hand control devices and 3D audio. Facebook bought Oculus Rift, Samsung are in there, PSVR is in the gaming market. Vive are out there. Google have a platform. Everyone’s playing with this stuff.
I have experienced dozens and dozens of different VR experiences. Let me tell you that all of them have blown my mind. Immersive VR repeatedly reminds me of the power of technology, not as something we use as tools and machines, but to truly interact our minds. The recent example of VR to rewire the brains of paraplegics so that they gain some control over their previously inert limbs is a glimpse of a future where the brain itself can be changed for the better by technology. That is the game we as learning professionals are in – changing minds for the better.
If you are in the learning game, you should at least be aware of its possibilities as it delivers some unique and exciting learning opportunities. It is clear that VR delivers some marvellous benefits in terms of attention (full-on), motivation (exciting), experience (experiential learning), learn by doing (often ignored), context (real) and therefore transfer and retention. But what can you do if you want to use VR to educate or train? Here’s a quick, practical primer.
1. Immersive photographs
The Mars Rover is a good example, where you feel as though you are there on Mars. Geographical and geological locations that benefit from this 360 degree view. Try these free locations, such as the Temple of Karnak in Luxor - some are astounding. This 360 view of the inside of the International Spacestation is great. One can set learning experiences around this image – ask learners to find stuff, annotate, explain things. One can also do the inside of a building, vehicle, whatever. Here’s one of the Supreme Court in the US.
360 degree photos have been around on Facebook for years. You simply shoot a panorama on your smartphone, open the Facebook app and post to share the photo. You can either turn with your finger or move the phone. To take thinks into proper VR, with newer Samsung phones you’ll see an icon tat says ‘View in VR’. Touch that, insert your phone into a Gear VR headset and you’ll see it in fully immersive VR. This is a great way to get started, play with ideas or prototype.
2. Immersive moving video
You place a 360 degree camera, such as a Ricoh (£300) in the middle of the space you want to video. This could be inside a vehicle, in a classroom, office, gallery, hospital ward, outside location – anywhere. Press play and you will have a full 360 world of action recorded, not in as high a definition as the photographs shot in option 1, but usable video.
I’ve seen this used for teacher training, where an entire lesson is captured and used to train that teacher through feedback or as exemplary lessons for other teachers. Hundreds of short 360 degree videos have been shot and are replayable through VR. News items from the BBC are plentiful on YouTube. Not for profits have high impact, emotionally charged videos on climate change, refugee issues and endangered species. In education I can’t think of few subjects that would NOT benefit from the use of VR. Maths, physics, chemistry, biology, drama, geography, history, languages, business, design, art, vocational subjects and soft skills can all potentially gain from the creation of 3D videos.
This approach is great for attitudinal training, where an issue, incident and shift in viewpoints is needed. The fact that the learner has no choice but to be fully attentive means you can hold them and deliver emotional impact with the learning outcome that results in high retention. I can remember, in details most of the VR experiences I have had that tried to deliver this type of attitudinal shift, from being shown retreating glaciers, rare White Rhinos, refugees landing in Greece, the guy who was going blind. There are dozens of these on YouTube. I love this one on Pluto's icy surface. This one on Mars. You can illustrate the inside of a an aircraft cockpit, even stand with David Attenborough, as dinosaurs come up to you. VR 360 degree videos are of use when you want to show motion or real people doing things in a space. They are cheap and relatively easy to shoot.
3. Immersive graphic worlds
Sometimes, rather than simply point a camera and shoot a still or moving image, you have to create a world with graphics. This frees you to create anything your imagination comes up with. It may at the tiny, even molecular level, an ideal hospital ward, or an impossible environment, such as the deep ocean or out in space, in a war zone, inside a nuclear reactor, out in the solar system, on Mars being near a black hole.
The advantage of created graphic environments is the ability to allow navigation, as well as the creation of other graphic entities within that world, objects, avatars and so on. It is a manipulable world of bits. You will need to build your world using a 3D graphics package, like 3D studio, then use a tool such as Unity, Unreal or Stingray to build your experience into a functional 3D learning experience, deliverable on specified devices. So you've created a world but where do you go from here? Interactivity. This is where things get trickier.
4, Navigate through worlds
If you want to string still or video environments together to give the user choices on where to go, either by cuts, fade down/fade back up, as used in video or, if in a graphically created world, moving through the environment. This can be done by simply looking at options and pressing a directional pad on the headset (Samsung Gear) or with a controller (Oculus comes with a Microsoft Xbox controller). This greatly expands your possibilities in learning. You give the learner choices and can create levels, progress, games. Navigation is possible but involves programing and hte creation of instructions and a usable user interface. It can be done but needs professional design and coding.
5. Hotspots
Hotspots for pop-up explanations, explanatory videos appearing, graphics or audio is pretty straight forward, as you;re mapping hotspots to the sphere or world you've created in VR. You need to identify hotspots as hotspots. never confuse the learner with hotspots that look as though they're interactive but they are not. One can imagine learning scenarios that get the learner to actually click on things they need to find and identify. One can embed PowerPoint, videos, animations, whatever.
6. Manipulate objects
The next level is to allow learners to manipulate objects. This can be useful in doing experiments, building things, maintenance tasks and so on. I’ve put together pipes and components inside a nuclear reactor, lifted and used safety equipment on an oil rig, grabbed a clip floating around in space to clip myself to the Space Station, before floating around on the outside, used hand controllers to shoot things in games and pull over protection shields. This is all possible with hand controllers, which have buttons and triggers for grabbing, releasing, shooting etc. This is tricky with mobile VR as they tend not to have hand controllers, all manipulation having to take place through the touchpad on your headset. But Oculus and Vive have separate controllers which allow both hands to do things in 3D spaces, as well as grab and so on. Haptic feel is also coming.
7. Avatar interaction
Avatars (human-like characters) can be created and programmed to move within 3D created VR worlds. This allows learning interaction with pre-programmed avatars. Doctors with patients, sales people with potential customers, managers with employees and so on. This is fine for pre-set encounters and directed training, useful in sales, management and soft skills. You have to cope with interaction, either through preselected text options (your questions, requests etc) and their replies. Beyond this lies speech, spoken by you the learner and the avatars you interact with. One interesting aspect of experiential learning is tutor directions and interventions. This can be fed live into your ears by audio or the tutor can be an avatar within the created world. I’ve seen this work well in technical training on oil rigs. There is also the future possibility of tutor support through chatbots. I've been experimenting with these AI-driven chatbots and they can be trained to respond to questions, requests for action etc.
8. Multiplayer interaction
Take all of the above and more, in worlds that are real, created, built and where you can meet, communicate and interact with your friends, business colleagues, customers, teachers whoever. It is no accident that Facebook bough Oculus Rift for an eye watering figure of $2.3 billion. They know that this is where social media is going. The real world is 3D, social media is currently 2D. Fully populated worlds, you can enter, play in and do things beyond our current imagination are coming. It’s frighteningly exciting. This may sound outlandish and way down the line but complete learning environments like this are already on with VR, multiplayer and tutor intervention.
9. Create things
In the outer limits of VR, you can already create your own 3D paintings and sculptures and walk through them. I like these applications. You can choose your brush, create images in a 3D space, stand back look at it, walk through it, stand inside it. This open world, where you create what you want, has an allure that has attracted millions of young people in Minecraft, who do this as a matter of routine. When they can climb inside these worlds a new level of creative effort will have been realised.
10. Hybrid real/virtual VR
You can go on rollercoasters where you wear VR but experience all the thrills of a real rollercoaster with extreme G-forces. What you see through VR is a rollercoaster in a created graphics world, in space, wherever. The VR experience is synched with the actual ride. You can even choose which virtual world to experience and now interact in space battles, at, for example Six Flags theme park. They use Samsung Gear headsets and can enhance the experience even on the oldest of rollercoasters.

I’ve sat in chairs that vibrate as I unlocked the air lock on the International Space Station and used my hands to grip onto handles to pull myself out. If you want to explore, walk, even run, through 3D worlds, a rig in which you stand and walk without moving can also be purchased. The VIVE headset allows you to walk about within a pre-defined cube, made visible from within. External cameras have been added to some headsets. In the porn industry all sorts of ‘objects’ can be used in the simulated of 3D sex (teledildonics). The line between the real and virtual is indeed blurring. It’s AR (Augmented Reality) meets VR (Virtual Reality) meets RR (real reality).
Being practical…
Couple of things to remember with VR. By all means play around with the medium but it needs careful thought and planning. Know what you want to do, choose the right level and understand the limits of the tools you use to capture and create experiences, as well as the tools used to create navigation, interaction and manipulation within those worlds. You have to understand where to place cameras (sitting or standing) and be careful with lighting. Audio is also important. Understand also, the resolution of the final output. It may say HD but the resolution on video will be far worse than that on stills from the same camera. The cost of coding a VR experience is open-ended. Then there’s your target devices – mobiles (selected), Oculus, Vive…. All of these? Remember that these are not easy to deliver via an LMS and SCORM is tricky.
The first three options (1,2,3)allow you to simply create learning ‘experiences’ that are linear and directed. They are cheap to produce, unless you want exotic locations. The next three (4,5,6) allow the learner more freedom with fuller forms of interaction, other than simply looking around. From 7 onwards, things get complex and expensive. If you're interested in doing a project contact me.

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