I had an experience 25 years ago that changed my perspective on computing and education. Back then I was running the early virtual reality (VR) company Immersion Corporation. Immersion developed the first VR simulators for teaching medical students to perform a range of surgical procedures, from inserting needles into the spine to performing laparoscopic surgery, angioplasty, bronchoscopy and colonoscopy.
As CEO, I had to give countless demos at trade shows and other events. After giving a demo of our virtual bronchoscopy system to a group of doctors, one of them asked me where I had gone to medical school. I was confused so he explained that I was quite skilled at the procedure.
This shocked me, for I had no medical training. My academic background was in robotics, control systems, software and human interfacing — no blood and guts. But that’s the amazing thing: By using our VR simulators to give demos, I had accidentally learned the complex 3D anatomy of the lungs and bronchial tubes, and developed the complex skills needed to guide a bronchoscope into a patient, find a tumor and perform a biopsy.
The learning was not factual, it was intuitive, which is far more impactful. In fact, if I was asked to explain how to perform a bronchoscopy today, I probably could — I even remember what it feels like (haptically) to push the scope past the vocal cords, a tricky part of the procedure.
All this said, for the last 25 years I have been convinced that virtual and augmented reality would ultimately become a very significant part of education. And not just for medical students and other professionals, but for all students from K-12 to college.
After all, there are many things we can teach through books and lectures, but we can’t teach students to internalize the vastness of a billion stars, or the profound smallness of a billion atoms. But in the metaverse, students can discover it for themselves. The possibilities have always seemed endless, but the technology was never quite ready for mass deployment.
Virtual reality in the classroom
This brings me to my recent visit to Dreamscape Learn, a company poised to revolutionize education from K-12 to college through the skillful use of VR experiences. Formed as a partnership between the VR entertainment company Dreamscape Immersive and Arizona State University, Dreamscape Learn has combined the power of movie-quality storytelling and cinematic visuals with deeply thoughtful educational principles and clearly defined learning goals.
Their objective is not to replace traditional classroom education, but to supplement it with “hands-on” labs conducted in VR. In fact, their labs are structured to provide 15 minutes of immersive experiences for every three hours of traditional learning. And no, their goal is not to replicate the stale 1950s-era labs that many students still must endure in high schools and colleges today. Instead, their approach is to use the creativity and flexibility of virtual worlds, combined with Hollywood-style storytelling, to engage students in an interactive narrative that keeps them focused while addressing specific learning goals.
As described to me by Dreamscape Learn CEO Josh Reibel, they are pushing for “radical transformation of what hands-on learning means.”
So what does radical transformation look like? To find out, I visited Dreamscape headquarters, put on a VR headset and jumped into the company’s educational world.
Its first learning module is a set of six labs designed to support college-level biology, and it doesn’t involve any students spending a full hour just to glance at an amoeba under a microscope. Instead, it’s a virtual reality experience called “Biology in the Alien Zoo” that transports students to an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary where they must solve a mystery of why alien creatures are dying. Having tried this myself, I can report that it draws you in, not as an observer but a participant who really wants to explore the world and solve the problem.
Most impactful for me is how immersive media can transport students not just to different times and places but to different scales, allowing them to gain intuition about the very large and very small. During my visit to Dreamscape Immersive, Walter Parkes, its founder and the former head of DreamWorks Motion Pictures, took me on a remarkable experience using a tool called the Immersive Classroom.
Almost like a magic carpet ride, the system allows an instructor to take an entire classroom to different places. It can also be used with a small group of students sitting around a virtual conference table with an instructor at the head, as might be done in a college seminar course.
Journeys into the past and beyond
Walter and I sat at such a virtual conference table and he took us on a journey, visiting a landscape with creatures the size of a brontosaurus. For the first time in my life, I truly appreciated how small we really are compared to dinosaurs.
He then shrunk us down and took us on a trip through the bloodstream, viewing red and white blood cells in their perfect proportions. We watched as macrophages attacked a cancerous cell, gaining intuition as to their relative sizes and the manner in which they operate.
Walter and I were able to discuss what we were looking at in real time, each of us represented as VR avatars.
Finally, he took me to visit some world heritage sites, where I could appreciate the true grandeur of ancient structures without having to get on a plane. To me, this capability to attain a first-person perspective will be transformational in education at all levels.
Yes, I believe immersive media is about to revolutionize learning, but don’t take my word for it. Researchers at ASU recently completed an initial round of studies to compare the Alien Zoo experience to traditional labs. They found that students who used VR scored 9% higher when graded on the learning goals, and reported higher enjoyment and engagement.
And this is just getting started. In the spring semester of 2023, ASU expects to have over 5,000 students using the VR modules. Next year, it’s expected that many additional universities will adopt the modules as well.
I’m sure many people reading this are wondering if this will really happen, or if “the metaverse” is just a passing fad. After all, many companies have tried to deploy K-12 experiences in VR in the past, and the results were often a cool demo that students tried once and then grew tired of.
I don’t believe the current push for immersive media in education will suffer the same fate. The hardware and software have gotten significantly better over the years and current developers like Dreamscape are using the capabilities more effectively.
Most of all, we have finally reached the point where low-cost VR and MR experiences can be so realistic and interactive that students can develop knowledge, skills and intuition that quickly become second nature — more like having a virtual apprenticeship than taking a course.
This is the future of education, and it’s coming soon.
Louis Rosenberg is an early pioneer of virtual and augmented reality, and the founder of Immersion Corporation, Microscribe 3D, Outland Research and Unanimous AI. He was also a professor of educational technology at California State University.
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