Imagine if a technology came along that allowed your students to transport themselves to any time or place, real or imagined. Imagine if this technology could be used to create a “flight simulator” for any skill, where students could practice and learn under the same conditions where they will use their skills. And imagine if this technology could also allow students to step into the shoes of a customer or a colleague of different gender, ethnicity, or culture. That technology is here. It’s virtual reality.
The world you experience when you strap on a virtual reality (VR) headset might be virtual, but the learning results are real. Football quarterbacks have seen decision-making skills improve by 30 percent. Fear of public speaking has been reduced by 20 percent. Unconscious bias has been reduced in study after study. All after just a few sessions in virtual reality.
MARCHING WITH MLK
The virtual reality learning revolution has already begun. “We have purchased 360-degree cameras and virtual reality headsets and empower faculty members to create their own VR video,” says Robbie Melton, Ph.D., Associate Vice Chancellor of Mobilization Emerging Technology of the Tennessee Board of Regents. Her list of virtual reality use-cases is already long: “One of our educational professors shoots wrap-around video in the classroom to transport future teachers to real-life teaching situations.”
The Tennessee Board of Regents supervises 47 campuses with 173,000 students and has a strategic plan for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality and holograms. Several professors use free virtual reality assets. “One of our professors is transforming his Humanities Curriculum so that when students study about Martin Luther King’s Washington March, they can now experience the march through the immersive technology of virtual reality” says Melton. The Tennessee higher education system is not just using virtual reality as a consumption tool, but a creation tool as well. “HTC Vive brings hand controllers so we can now do art projects in VR and AR,” exclaims Melton. Virtual reality painting programs like Google Tilt Brush can be used for everything from 3D sculptures, to whiteboarding of calculus assignments; and from prototyping of new products, to architectural design. Virtual reality has been particularly empowering for students with disabilities, according to Dr. Melton. “Someone in a wheelchair can experience going down a virtual ski slope or swimming in an ocean.”
This sixth-largest system of public higher education in the United States is launching a major longitudinal study to research the learning retention impact and rate and performance achievement and outcomes of virtual and augmented reality after six months. “Our assumption is that VR/AR are going to beat video or any other medium by 75 percent,” says Dr. Melton.
FACEBOOK BETTING THE FUTURE ON VR
The fervor for VR could easily be dismissed if it only came from educational leaders and smaller technology startups. But when Mark Zuckerberg is betting the future of Facebook on the new technology, there’s reason for learning leaders to pay attention. Zuckerberg was so impressed by the possibilities of VR that Facebook spent $2 billion to get a piece of this growing market, acquiring virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR. While the first generation of VR is aimed at the gaming and entertainment markets, Zuckerberg argues that VR is “the next major computing and communication platform after phones.” When Facebook launched it was mostly used for text-based updates. Today the newsfeed is filled with pictures and self-playing videos. The next step is to capture entire scenes, in 3D and 360 degrees. Most of the other digital media giants, including Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft are pouring billions and jostling for leadership in the nascent virtual and augmented reality market. Would you bet against these tech titans?
Perhaps not. But learning organizations are not yet jumping in with both feet. Anthony Rotolo, Courseware Manager at the Defense Acquisition University cautions that, “We’re still in the hype cycle, we get enamored with technology solutions in search of a business case.” He doesn’t think VR is a panacea. “It has an obvious role to train a bomb squad, but I have a hard time seeing it used to teach something like an earned value management formula.” Rotolo is taking a wait-and-see approach for now. “I’d want to see a couple of years of performance before the government applies it to e-learning. It’s prudent to wait until VR is more mature and proven.”
Other organizations are piloting VR in small scale. Lehigh Valley Health Network, a hospital group with seven campuses in Pennsylvania, looks for low-risk, highreward VR projects. “We’re trying to prototype and find correlations between VR training applications and performance improvements. We have to prove that we can change metrics,” says Virginia Cooney, Senior eLearning Designer, adding: “If I can reduce error rates with catheter insertions through VR training, that would be a big win that we can build on and get funding for larger VR programs.”
Technical skill training like this can be a good start for a virtual reality pilot. “You use the same criteria as any simulation: Is it too expensive, is it too dangerous, or is it otherwise too impractical to practice in real life?” Argues Anthony Rotolo of the Defense Acquisition University. “VR has to pass that test of suitability.” Emergency response, product installation or repair, and healthcare procedures are usually good candidates for virtual reality learning.
Lehigh Valley Health Network has a large physical simulation center where actors play patients, but it’s a limited resource with a schedule filled to capacity. Virginia Cooney doesn’t think that will be replaced any time soon, but says: “as we keep acquiring new clinics further away we need to look at virtual solutions.” Her team has run 3D immersive multiplayer training programs on the desktop for years. They started in Second Life and have transitioned through several 3D platforms. “The most recent project is a 3D immersive orientation for nurses,” says Cooney. The new challenge is to transition from the desktop monitor to virtual reality headsets, where a student can experience full body immersion. “The advances in haptic feedback are important for us too, recreating the sensation of cutting into a body, for instance.”
For all the excitement about using VR as technical skills training simulator, there might be just as many opportunities to use it for soft skills training. Virtual reality has proven to be the most visceral approach to experience the world from people with different gender, race, age, or nationality and reduce bias against them. Stanford University’s Director of Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson argues that, “For about 12 years now, we’ve been running study after study showing that feeling discrimination firsthand while walking a mile in someone else’s shoes [through virtual reality] is a better way to change attitudes and behavior.” Bailenson and his team have validated the so called “Proteus Effect,” in which the behavior of an individual, within online virtual worlds, is changed by the visual characteristics of their avatar.
Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has even conducted experiments simulating the feeling of being a cow in virtual reality. Subjects donned a VR headset, got down on all fours, and when the simulation was turned on found themselves in a virtual pasture. The scene transitioned to the holding pen of a cattle truck, where a haptics system simulated the vibrations of the moving truck as it took them to the slaughterhouse. The study found that people felt more connected to the animals than those who simply watched the simulation play out on a screen and ultimately might be less likely to eat meat. This ability to be embodied as a different person or even a different species is why virtual reality has been hailed as “The Ultimate Empathy Machine,” by film maker Chris Milk. Imagine the opportunities to build this kind of empathy in sales and service training, coaching skill development, and diversity and inclusion programs.
VR HEADSET MARKET
The current generation virtual reality headsets range from a cardboard box for a few dollars to a $3,000 computerheadset bundle. If you’re a New York Times subscriber, you might already own a VR headset. It recently provided over a million subscribers with a fold-your-own cardboard box, including plastic lenses, magnets, and Velcro. Just drop almost any smart phone into the “Google Cardbaord” box and experience VR for yourself. If you own certain models of the Samsung Galaxy, you can get a $99 GearVR headset, which offers a step up in comfort and quality from the cardboard box. With the new Google Pixel phone, you can buy a similarly priced Google Daydream headset. These mobile headsets provide a good entry point to virtual reality. They work well for shorter and more linear experiences, such as a 360-degree spherical video.
At the high end of the virtual reality market, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are locked in race for market leadership. The HTC Vive comes with laser cameras and a very long cord connected to a PC that allows you to roam around a room up to 15 times 15 feet large. Using hand controllers, you can see representations of your hands in the virtual space. A clever visual overlay in the virtual scene indicates where the real-life walls are to keep you bumping into them.
Both Microsoft and Oculus Rift have announced headsets that will occupy the middle ground between mobile and PC tethered headsets. These devices will have trackers built in, rather than relying on external laser cameras, making them easier to set up and use. They are expected to hit the market sometime next year.
Which virtual reality headset will be the winner? Or will we see a balkanized Mac vs. PC-style war of competing standards? Only time will tell. My advice would be to keep an open mind and not put all your chips on one system, yet.
On the heels of virtual reality is its cousin “augmented reality” (AR) or “mixed reality.” We all got a taste of a crude form of AR via the explosion of Pokémon Go. Virginia Cooney at Lehigh Valley Health Network is already plotting a Pokémon GO-style game for orienting new med students to her campuses: “They will get to know the new campus by walking around and finding the equivalence of poké balls and answer questions.”
But, the real breakthrough with augmented reality will be eye wear that projects holographic images on top of the real world. “Augmented reality is the real game changer,” says Robbie Melton of the Tennessee Board of Regents. “We have three HoloLenses in our classrooms already.” The Microsoft HoloLens is a see-through headset that projects holographic images on top of the real world. “The HoloAnatomy is unbelievably impactful, it revolutionizes anatomy and physiology teaching”, Melton said.
Melton is an industry veteran who puts the new technology in perspective. “I’ve been in the learning industry for 45 years, I hail from the time of chalkboards; virtual and augmented reality is by far the biggest technology revolution of my career.”