Learning the Basics

The last week has been an opportunity to develop our skills in using the controllers and apps. Much like using a new gaming platform or mobile phone for the first time it has taken time to get used to the sensitivity of the headset and controllers and learn the new buttons and gestures the software utilises. We have found that they are not always intuitive: the windows button is far to easily pressed in particular when trying to find the minute menu button which is needed far more frequently than its size and accessibility suggests! It is also frustrating that different apps (most notable Google Earth) use slightly different commands and buttons to operate. This results in some vertigo induced dizziness as the app moves unexpectedly at the press of an incorrect button. However, with time these commands are definitely becoming more second nature and hopefully, apps will increasingly have a common language for navigation.

Now that the initial set up and installation teething-problems have been overcome, we are finding it relatively straightforward to load and set up the equipment in different classrooms. It now takes just a few minutes to ensure that the connections and software is set up correctly. We are experimenting with different apps, kindly recommended and loaned from SystemActive. Our preference so far has been for apps like Google Earth that provide excellent graphics but allow oral contributions from the class. Other apps like the Body VR, would be good for students to research at home but do not have the same functionality for in lesson teaching. We also prefer apps that allow you to move your location in virtual reality. We have found those apps like the Body VR and VR Roller-coaster to cause greater motion-sickness because the graphics are moving without any corresponding movement from the user.

This week also saw ISC Digital have their first meeting in virtual reality. We used the Engage Platform which offers a variety of meeting locations and functionality. As an app it was incredibly impressive, offering clear sound and graphics and flexibility in teaching and discussions. We particularly liked the way the avatars responded to our actions, allowing us to sit down for meetings, record our ideas and even collaborate in reconstructing a human skeleton. The ability to see responses in real time added another layer of value above a normal video call. The different choices of meeting location were excellent from a comfortable meeting room or lecture hall, to the beach (including under the water) and even Mars. We were also able to introduce and photograph different props from life sized dinosaurs to egg laying chickens. It was clear that this could be a really helpful tool for meetings and teaching, particularly when not all the students were in one location. It would be invaluable for students on long term sick-leave or where a school or university operated on a number of different campus locations. A clear limitation though was that each student would need a headset and controllers to participate and this will be beyond the financial reach of many schools at present.

The app seems to have a wide range of opportunities for future development too (we are awaiting the much anticipated update). The mini task of collaborating to compile a skeleton in the correct order as a group was excellent and we look forward to seeing where this might lead in other teaching areas. They also had a Physics and Mathematics based problem using a cannon ball activity to test students' understanding of angle of elevation, distance and speed. There was also clearly vast potential for fieldwork activities. Different locations and fieldwork equipment could be made available for students to simulate the techniques and practice improving their accuracy and precision. We feel this could be game-changing for Geography and Science Fieldwork as students are able to practice in the safety and convenience of the classroom. Not only would this improve their skills from muscle knowledge, enhancing their speed and proficiency but it also allows them to be more efficient in planning and executing fieldwork in real life using the new skills they have learnt. It would enable students to become accustomed to and adapt at minimising more dangerous conditions (in rivers for example) helping them to be more aware and take greater precautions because of the reduced load on their processing from prior practice. There are clear time, cost and safety gains from any practice that has taken place before going into the field.

While it was excellent to see small features like our height transposed correctly automatically into the software, we do think there could be greater functionality and variability of the "avatars". There are limited clothing choices and none particularity flattering for teachers. We would also ask why is there no formal suit for women? The hairstyle and face shape options also take on a slightly ghoulish and threatening appearances when photographed as a still shot as evidenced above! There are alarming contortions when controllers are held still or behind our backs which take a while to get used to in a meeting. We feel a collaboration with something more like the "Sims" would be appealing to teachers and students alike but perhaps this will be possible in the next update.

Other unexpected issues were the inability to take notes during the meeting and indeed the loss of perception of other crucial factors like the time. Engage overcame the time issue in meeting rooms with the addition of very helpful and accurately working clocks in virtual reality. However, it was easy to lose track of time in venues like Mars. The first problem will take longer to get used to as using virtual reality it is a whole new way of working. It is possible to record discussions as a video but this means a full replay of events if you wanted to check just a few facts. It seems like virtual note taking might also be possible eventually but this seems to negate the social benefits of meeting in virtual reality and adds another layer of complexity. There is also the significant problem of reduced functionality as the virtual computer invariably has fewer features and greater problems of note extraction than simply typing or writing notes during a meeting.

There is so much potential and we look forward to testing the app further in future meetings.

Engage's instructional video on the functionality of their software.