Oculus Rift Fueling New Vision for Virtual Reality in K-12
But critics question educational value
After decades of false starts and unkept promises, makers of virtual-reality technology could soon be ready to give students a new and potentially powerful way to learn.
In March, the social-media giant Facebook paid a whopping $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, the Irvine, Calif.-based startup behind a new virtual-reality headset known as the Oculus Rift. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described Oculus' device as a "new communications platform," akin to personal computers and mobile devices, that could have similarly far-reaching implications for gaming, entertainment, social networking, and classroom learning.
Potential educational applications include virtual field trips, immersive digital learning games and simulations, and therapeutic experiences for students with special needs.
But not everyone is buying the hype. Previous virtual-reality technologies got a lot of attention in the 1990s, and again in the early 2000s, before mostly falling flat, and public schools in the United States are not exactly known as hotbeds for nurturing emerging technologies.
"Virtual reality is super-cool, but schools are still struggling with the blocking and tackling of getting basic digital technologies in classrooms," said Trace A. Urdan, a senior analyst for Wells Fargo Securities in San Francisco who tracks digital learning investment trends.
Nevertheless, some veteran observers of virtual reality are convinced that the technology's moment has finally arrived. And a handful of developers have begun creating services, such as virtual-reality college tours, for the Oculus Rift.
Oculus has made technical breakthroughs, effectively addressing some of the problems that plagued previous versions of virtual-reality technologies, while dramatically lowering production costs on devices that had cost $10,000 or more, said Jeffrey Jacobson, the director of Boston-based PublicVR, a nonprofit involved in research and software development related to virtual reality in education.
At roughly $350 per headset, the Rift—and its emerging competitors—will finally make virtual-reality devices available at a price that schools and families can afford, he said.
"People will grump and say, 'I've seen all this before,' " Mr. Jacobson said. "They're wrong. This is the dawn of consumer VR."
Oculus officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
The company's backstory, though, has quickly become the stuff of tech-industry legend.
Numerous reports describe how Oculus founder Palmer Freeman Luckey, then an 18-year old home-schooled technophile, pioneered groundbreaking new approaches to VR technology in his parents' Long Beach, Calif. garage, in part using the money he earned repairing friends' iPhones.
From there, Mr. Luckey in 2012 initiated a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that provided the millions of dollars in revenue needed to launch his company.
The $2 billion that Oculus VR fetched from Facebook surprised even industry insiders.
For now, commercial gaming appears to be the Oculus Rift's primary use, but during an online Google Hangout hosted by the White House earlier this year, Mr. Luckey touted the device's potential classroom applications, such as immersive virtual field trips and science experiments.
"Kids don't learn best from reading a book or looking at a chalkboard," Mr. Luckey said during the online discussion. "It's going to take these things that are impossible to do today and make them a part of everyday education."
He has also suggested that the devices could be given to educational institutions for free.
So far, Oculus has not made a consumer version of the Oculus Rift publicly available, but about 75,000 prototype kits for developers are now in circulation, according to media reports.
Addressing Special Needs
Mathieu Marunczyn is among the first K-12 teachers in the world to use the device with students in a classroom.
In a telephone interview, the technology and special education instructor at the Jackson School in Victoria in Western Australia said his students—all of whom have special needs, and many of whom have some form of autism—found the Oculus Rift to be "awesome."
"Visually, it's stunning," Mr. Marunczyn said. "Everything takes on a massive scale. It just provokes and promotes a very imaginative response [from students], and ultimately that's what I want to see."
Users wearing the Oculus Rift have a wide range of vision that effectively places them not in front of a screen but inside a virtual world that is displayed to them in 3-D via two separate lenses. As a user turns his or her head, the display adjusts in real time, making it feel as though he or she is inhabiting an actual environment.
Through a high-tech series of gyroscopes, motion sensors, and algorithms that can predict a user's movements, Oculus has mostly eliminated the latency and digital blurring that left users of most previous virtual-reality technologies feeling dizzy, nauseated, or simply disappointed in the experience.
Mr. Marunczyn described the calming effect on his students of structured sessions with meditative or relaxation-oriented virtual-reality apps, such as Titans of Space, a short guided tour of planets and stars.
"[The Oculus Rift] needs to be properly and ethically researched," he said, "but I think it's going to be huge."
Mr. Jacobson of PublicVR agreed, predicting that affordable virtual-reality headsets will quickly find a niche because "there will be a few things they do better than everything else."
For example, a substantial body of research from industry and the military shows that immersive virtual-reality experiences can serve as effective training tools to help people learn to perform new tasks, Mr. Jacobson said.
And research that PublicVR and others have conducted suggests that immersive virtual-reality technologies help students learn by giving them an "inside view" of a structure or an environment—an Egyptian temple, for instance, or Puget Sound—that they might otherwise observe only externally.
"When students can see the entire interior of a space, they understand how it fits together and what it means and how it works much more readily," Mr. Jacobson said. "If it's a forest, they're there. If it's a jet engine, they have their hands in it."
But whatever the promise of a new product, any company still must find a way to overcome the well-established barriers to new-technology adoption that characterize K-12 schools, said Mr. Urdan, the market analyst.
"Facebook has more money than God, so if they want to come in and disrupt education funding protocols by pumping their own money into schools, more power to them," he said. "But I haven't seen evidence that they're willing to go that far."
Mr. Urdan chalked up talk of a potential education focus for Oculus, and the possibility of free devices being given to schools, as a public relations strategy.
"If you take these things and stick them in an all-Hispanic classroom in East Palo Alto, you'll get all kinds of heartwarming news coverage of kids with helmets on their heads checking out ancient Pompeii," he said. "Good for them, but that's not a business model."
Perhaps the most promising educational use of the new virtual-reality devices parallels their primary commercial use: digital games.
Mr. Marunczyn, for example, said he briefly began experimenting with allowing his students to construct their own virtual worlds using the popular online game Minecraft, then explore those worlds in virtual reality using the Oculus Rift—a pedagogical strategy that Mr. Jacobson deemed "educational gold."
But even there, hurdles have appeared.
Shortly after Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook, Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft and the owner of the company that developed and released the game, posted a statement on his blog.
"I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook," he wrote. "There's nothing about their history that makes me trust them."
Companies such as YouVisit, meanwhile, are beginning to hedge their bets, developing virtual-reality tools not just for the Oculus Rift, but also for Google's new Cardboard do-it-yourself virtual-reality kit and, potentially, for the anticipated outcome of Sony's foray into virtual reality, known as Project Morpheus.
"We're exploring other platforms, because we don't know when the Rift is going to be ready," said Endri Tolka, the co-founder and chief financial officer of the New York City-based YouVisit. "But Oculus is by far the strongest and most robust [virtual-reality] platform out there."
YouVisit works with colleges and universities to build virtual campus tours for prospective students. Founded in 2009, the company began with Web-based tours. In 2010, it released its first mobile app. Just this year, it finished adapting its more than 1,000 tours for the Oculus Rift.
Students considering West Virginia University, for example, can now strap on the headset and find themselves at the 50-yard line of Mountaineer Field, in the middle of the marching band's pre-football-game routine, or looking up into stands filled with thousands of fans.
Initially, the company's plan is to develop virtual-reality tours for colleges and recruiters, who will in turn provide them to recruiters armed with the Oculus Rift at fairs and other recruitment events. Eventually, the company hopes to encourage the adoption of the devices by high school guidance counselors so that students can "visit" any college they desire from their counselor's office.
A Look Back
Reporting: Ben Herold (research assistance provided by Librarian Holly Peele and Library Intern Rachel James) | Design: Gina Tomko
Vol. 34, Issue 02, Pages 10-11Published in Print: August 27, 2014, as Oculus Rift Fueling New Vision for Virtual Reality in K-12