Virtual reality, once lumped in with flying cars, holograms and tartan paint as fictional and scary, is now a reality. Game developers, tech start-ups, film makers and designers around the world are scrambling to understand and explore how this technology can enrich our lives. VR is more accessible with more content available and is easier to integrate into daily life than ever before. So how are educators making virtual reality a reality in the classroom, and what opportunities does VR offer young people?

VR is simple in principle; A user wears a headset that tracks their movements and displays video and audio according to their position. Video is split into two images, one for each eye, while also applying barrel distortion to each image to counter pincushion distortion from the lenses. The result is a stereoscopic (“3D”) image with a wide field of view. Combined with stereoscopic 360 degree audio, a user can view and interact with an environment.

But until recently the technology behind virtual experiences has been either unreliable or expensive. It was the Oculus Rift that changed things; it offered the masses an immersive video gaming experience bringing players closer than ever to their ‘avatar’. Alongside video games, VR is also being embraced as a legitimate and unique artistic medium. This year the Sundance Film Festival featured the first original short films created specifically for VR Viewing. VR Company VRSE released an original VR documentary telling the story of three children displaced by conflict across the world, allowing audiences to literally walk in someone else’s shoes. Excitingly for kiwis, these innovators aren’t holed up in Silicon Valley; here in Wellington VR start-up 8i are developing ways to record real people who can walk around in virtual reality, with potential applications in communication and storytelling.

Given the ‘WOW’ factor, VR’s growing accessibility and its position at the cutting edge, young people are drawn to VR, and the tech is no longer out of reach. Google recently released Cardboard, a simple cardboard headset that holds a smartphone and offers everyone a VR experience. On January 27, 2016, Google announced that in the platform’s first 19 months, over 5 million Cardboard viewers had shipped, over 1,000 compatible applications had been published, and over 25 million application installs had been made. Most smartphones can fit a headset and there are companion apps to offer content; from simple games, panoramas and YouTube videos to painting apps and even an exclusive 360 degree VR recording of a Paul McCartney concert.

On the education front Google are trialling Expeditions, a series of virtual reality panoramas lead by a teacher or a guide for up to 50 students wearing Cardboard headsets. According to the company, so far 500,000 students took a VR field trip through the Expeditions program.

While Expeditions is still in beta, we can still use VR to support classroom inquiries. Imagine a study of Ancient Egypt; students use Google Street View to tour modern day Cairo, exploring real streets in 360 degrees with 3D sound. Then they move back in time and could investigate high definition 3D scans of ancient artefacts held in museums around the world. An inquiry could even conclude with VR games where students explore the inner pathways under the pyramids. The same VR infrastructure can be applied to a huge range of subjects to support, engage and reinforce concepts and content.

At Capital E in Wellington, we are exploring the production of VR content with young people, asking them to engage with VR as creative producers rather than end users. By ‘popping the hood’ on VR students can design original experiences for others. They can see this technology is accessible and that they can have a direct impact on its development, literally designing a difference. Wellington is emerging as the digital capital of New Zealand, and young people can delve into this fast-growing industry.

Our sessions, delivered to years 7+, balance the history and ideology behind VR with a technical introduction to VR design. During a two-hour session students design a 3D world, set weather parameters, populate it with 3D models and animated animals, then set up a 3D camera inside their world. The process doesn’t require any complicated coding and the results are relatively immediate. At the end of the session they ‘build’ their world into an android app, install it on a smartphone and view it in Google Cardboard headsets. Then their apps are uploaded to the Capital E website for them to download onto their own phones.

We use Unity  (a game engine, free for not-for-profit use, that has expanded to cater for VR games) to design a 3D terrain, allowing students to sculpt, paint and detail an environment. Along the way students negotiate 3D space, design in three dimensions and realise the potential of the medium. Students need a basic computer literacy and the willingness to learn about a brand new interface quickly, but Unity and Google have made it as easy as possible for people to access VR creation. The Unity software and Cardboard SDK (software development kit) for Unity are free, the Cardboard headset template can be downloaded for free, and many students have their own smartphones.

We hope as technology develops further we can expand the sort of VR content we produce, from 3D worlds to original short films, animated tales, documentaries and games. We need young people to know that they are the ones who will be developing this technology in the future and we want them to know that the possibilities are endless and its in their hands.

The MediaLab is a multimedia suite, part of Capital E Digital, that explores digital storytelling, 2D and 3D design, animation, movie making, app programming and music composition. Whether they’re printing 3D models, designing soundtracks or creating smart phone apps young people are empowered to be creative producers.

– Written by Samuel Phillips, MediaLab Coordinator, Capital E