[Part 3 of the VR in Education series, “In Education We Need To Do More Than Sharpen Existing Tools”]

iSci Project - WSU

When a technology like virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) is described as having the potential to change our lives even more than the smartphone, you can bet that the demand for, and interest from, software developers and designers will skyrocket. Why wouldn’t it? The VR market is hot. In fact, job candidates with VR knowledge are in short supply according to Road to VR. Companies exploring applications beyond gaming, such as B2B or other sectors, are having difficulty meeting demand. But in order to do VR right, you need more than just mad programming skills. While many skills translate, VR is something that requires a different level of understanding in order for developers to innovate on form and function. The stakes are high with billions of dollars invested in VR platforms and building a pipeline of skilled workforce to meet the needs is imperative.

To cover this topic at the Virtual Reality Summit in New York, I invited Brenda Grell, Professor, Washington State University, Vancouver to join my panel on April 11.  Grell is on the faculty of the Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) department at WSU. The department’s mission is to pioneer interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary intersections of the humanities, arts, sciences, communications, business, and technology. During my visit last month, I met with the CMDC director, Dr. Dene Gregar, and Brenda Grell who runs the Advanced Animation and Electronic Literature Lab. I was treated to a lineup of cool demos at their Motion-Tracking Virtual Environment (MOVE Lab) that turned me into an instant fan. The MOVE Lab combines sensor-based physical computing with virtual and augmented reality technologies for education, business, communication, and art.

The demos represented actual projects underway by faculty and students. A partial list includes:

  • Motion Tracking/VR Project
  • Life Renewed: Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center
  • iSci: Interactive Technologies for Science Immersion
  • a sneak peek at a multimedia book called the AppBook.

The iSci demo, for example, aims to produce an interactive immersive environment for teaching scientific concepts of chemistry to students from middle school through college. It harnesses commercially available technologies such as a Kinect Game System, Wii Remote, Falcon GameiSci molecule demo - WSU Controller, and tablets or smart phones.  This project re-envisions the classroom experience and removes obstacles to teaching STEM. My interest was piqued so I gave it a try.

In short, I was blown away!  It allowed me to interact with and manipulate salt molecules and actually feel the relative strength of bonds between the atoms as I tugged one apart. You experience what happens between molecules through haptic feedback that applies forces, motions, or vibrations! Brilliantly designed, a hydrogen atom is mapped to the Falcon controller, allowing motion and vibration of that atom to translate to motion and vibration of the Falcon’s handle. Likewise, forces generated by a student on the Falcon’s handle can influence the simulation of the molecule. Kinect is a motion-sensing device that tracks body movement in 3D. It also recognizes hand gestures and voice commands, which allows for hands free controlling and gesture based controls. This allows students to use natural gestures to make a molecule to zoom in or out, rotate, and move across a space.

Coolness factors notwithstanding, I also gained full appreciation for their mission and why it is most relevant to VR content development and the shortage of VR-knowledgeable candidates. Programs that aim to foster a culture of creativity will deliver the greatest positive impact to stakeholders, and that is what stood out the most during my visit. Thinking back to my early career in high tech where I was a programmer in the database labs at Hewlett Packard, I certainly felt the paradigm shift. Similarly, I recall later in my career doing market validation for a startup client developing a high performance computer system designed specifically for the scientific research market.  The completion of the human genome project created a new market for computer and development solutions. A common theme I would hear from scientists was the frustration in finding software developers that could understand the environment, users, and content. Many scientists would give up and learn programming in order to crunch their research data.

Bottom line, it appears that CMDC has the right formula—a transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach that brings investigators, faculty and students from different disciplines to work jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem. Perhaps working at the intersection of arts, technology and humanities is just what we need to fill the pipeline of VR content creators and to gain the most from what VR and AR have to offer.

See Part 1, “In Education We Need To Do More Than Sharpen Existing Tools.”

See Part 2, “Impact of VR in Vocational Education and Training.”

See Part 4, “21st Century Tools for 21st Century Learning

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any company mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company mentioned beyond what is described in this article.

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