Lawnmower Man was the beginning of my journey into the use of VR for education. That one didn’t end so well 🙂
Since then, VR has gone through a few hype-cycles, each time ending up in disappointment and disuse. However, each iteration brings graphics and experiences (and expectations) that blow away the previous versions and do so in smaller and (arguably) cheaper boxes.
The most recent iteration is a two-pronged focus. Dedicated VR boxes (similar to gaming boxes) with headsets are doing amazing things with realistic graphics and the processing power required to reach realistic virtual experiences. Some of these are Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. The second prong is mobile-based VR. This seems to be the stronger of the two at this point, most likely due to the lower cost of entry for consumers and the portable nature of the hardware. On the low end, Google Cardboard (or other viewers based on the Cardboard standard) can be found for as little as $5. These enable users to experience VR, but do so without many bells and whistles, and they can be used on most modern smartphones. The only “button” on cardboard devices is a chooser button on the top of the viewer. On the slightly higher end, but still rather inexpensive are viewers like the Samsung Gear VR and the relatively new Google Daydream VR. The Gear VR has been around for a couple years. It connects to your smartphone via bluetooth and includes buttons for volume, directionality (to a limited degree), selection, and focus. These types of headsets tend to fit better and block out more outside light for better viewing.
Apps for both of these types of VR hardware tend to be similar. Games rule the roost as they are immersive and engaging. There are many good games, but most are little more than a 180 degree view of action and not true 360 or spherical. I’m guessing this is due to both processor power and cost of development. In addition to games, 360 degree video and images are also popular. 360 videos are of the fly-through variety. This is wonderful for experiencing the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon or the excitement of Rio’s Carnival, but there is little to no engagement. 360 images, on the other hand, with hotspots for linking to extra information take the museum approach. Think Google Street View inside a museum, a city, and so forth. These are not video but rather single pictures with a 360 degree view or a series of pictures (stations) as in the museum example. At least one YouTuber (LearnEnglishInVR — was LinguaPractica) has put these together by recording and narrating the view around rooms to listen to and identify objects for English language learning.
Aside from a few projects here and there, there are vary few examples of using these VR options for language learning. This is an ongoing problem with educational software. There have been many new technologies over the years with great potential for education, but little development. In the end, cost seems to be the biggest barrier. Not just the cost of development, but the lack of a return on that investment. For example, the cost of developing a game might be high, but imagine if that game was only a one or two week lesson in school. Then, imagine providing 30-40 weeks of instruction. The difficulty of development and the cost to do so would be staggering. And, in the end, who will be able to pay for that? Will you recoup your costs? It’s unlikely. Billions of dollars are spent on educational technology, but much of that is not for the provision of content, but rather the management of students. So, what does this mean for those interested in using VR for language learning?
Teachers have been re-purposing materials for use in classes since the beginning of education. The use of video games for learning over the years have mainly taken the form of entertain games for the purpose of education. For example, how could League of Legends be used for language learning? Turn the settings to English and try to engage English speakers in the game. These games weren’t make for language learning, but they have been used for such. For most teachers, VR will be the same (at least in the near future). Virtual visits to sites and events through 360 images and video are already used by many teachers (see Google Expeditions) and I’m sure some are using available games to accomplish their goals.
However, like many recent technologies, VR will not be widely used by teachers until easy-to-use authoring tools are available. The better and easier (and cheaper) authoring tools become, the more teachers, students, and anyone interested can develop their own VR materials. The lower the barrier of entry, the easier this becomes. Some services are already available for 360 images (not yet video), such as ThinkLink. When authoring systems like this become accessible to teachers, you will see many materials developed for classes.
I hope to be discussing this topic more in the near future. I have been interested in virtual worlds for language learning since getting involved in MUDs and MOOs in graduate school, but particularly so when discovering SecondLife. Wikipedia has a good page on virtual world language learning. Now that Linden Labs (creator of SecondLife) is launching a new virtual world built for VR hardware called Sansar, I have to say that I’m getting excited again. However, I’m afraid we may just be seeing history repeat itself. SecondLife was(is) great, but usage completely crashed. The public lost interest even with a substantial amount of investment initially heading there. To have a GOOD experience, users needed a high-end computer and fast connection. Most went in with less and the experience wasn’t very good. Even these days, I have problems accessing it from a work computer with a nice processor, but only a built-in graphics. I only have one computer that will play it and it’s the one I built with my son for PC gaming ($$$). Let’s see what this year brings.