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I’m in a lecture hall listening to a cartoonish avatar of the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the history of science. Just as he starts speaking about medieval beliefs in demons, a red devil appears out of nowhere. It rushes at my face baring its teeth, making me flinch.
As Tyson moves on to Galileo and the experimental method, he conjures a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of thin air, from which drop the two famous balls of different mass with exactly the same accelerations.
This lecture hall is, of course, not real. I’m wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset, experiencing the virtual spaces created by Immersive VR Education, a company based in a non-descript business park in the Republic of Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford. Tyson’s conjuring tricks are just a taste of VR’s potential to change how students learn, according to Dave Whelan, who quit his web design business to found the company in 2014 after donning a headset for the first time. (“As soon as I put it on my face, I knew I wanted to work in VR,” he says.)
Whelan envisages a world where aeronautics students assemble jet engines in VR, engineers build bridges around them using a kind of “virtual Meccano set” and chemistry lecturers take their classes inside models of molecules. “Why even teach in a classroom?” he asks. “If you’re teaching marine biology, teach that on the seabed and have a whale swim through the centre of the class. It’s a lot more engaging.”
Whelan is just one of many people experimenting with the educative potential of VR now that the technology is widely accessible. High-quality headsets that can smoothly track head movements have come on to the consumer market in the past year. You would struggle to mistake the alternative worlds they conjure for real life just yet, but developers are already creating impressively detailed environments that look nearly as good as current computer games.
At the top end, the headsets are not cheap, starting at £350 ($433) each and requiring a powerful computer, or a PlayStation 4, to run on (more affordable systems that do not track movement as comprehensively use smartphones that slot into relatively simple goggles). But despite the cost of equipping classrooms and lecture halls, education is predicted to become a sizeable part of the emerging VR market. A Goldman Sachs report released early last year predicted that there could be a $700 million (£550 million), 15 million-user market in schools and universities by 2025. And in October, Facebook, which bought headset maker Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, promised $10 million to help develop educational VR experiences.
It is easy enough for a medical student to examine a human skeleton without virtual reality, of course. But Whelan says that the next stage of the project is to create a far more detailed model of human anatomy that can be disassembled and reconstructed in VR. “That’s going to be useful for all medical institutes,” he says, adding that medicine is the “beachhead” for the use of VR in universities.
Earlier this year, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, released a video showing how it is using Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to teach its medical students (below).
Microsoft HoloLens lets Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic reimagine health education
Unlike the headsets that Whelan uses, the HoloLens allows users see the environment around them as it projects images on to a visor to create 3D objects that appear, hologram-like, in the room around them (this is known as augmented, or mixed, reality). At $3,000, the HoloLens is particularly expensive, but it is not aimed at consumers.
In the video, students wearing the headsets are shown inspecting a model of the human body from every angle. At one point they are even joined by the floating head of their lecturer (physically located in another city), who explains connections in the brain. Learning is so much faster that “students have commented that a 15-minute session with HoloLens could have saved them dozens of hours in the cadaveric lab”, says Pamela Davis, dean of Case Western Reserve’s medical school.
"As with Moocs, virtual reality will not replace the physical university" says David Matthews.
Source: Times Higher Education (THE) and case Channel (YouTube)