In Ready Player One, perhaps the best known novel yet written about virtual reality (VR), the protagonist Wade Watts lives in a cramped trailer, scavenges for food and has to dodge murderers and rapists on a bleak and dangerous compound on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
Yet although he lives in a dystopian vision of the world in 2044, the teenage Wade in some ways has access to a better education than any young person today.
Because he can plug into a wildly popular, hyper-realistic virtual world called the OASIS, Wade is able to attend a virtual school where teachers take their classes on astonishing field trips: they go inside the human heart to watch how it pumps blood around the body; they witness archaeologists discover Tutankhamen’s tomb; or they stand on the volcanic surface of Jupiter’s moon Io to observe the planet’s Great Red Spot.
His teachers, also logged in to the virtual world, are highly motivated, largely because they can effectively mute pupils’ avatars to prevent any bad behaviour.
VR has long been a staple of science fiction. But this year sees the release of several consumer headsets that are advanced enough to fool users’ unconscious minds into believing that they really are in another world – something called “presence” in the jargon of the industry – and largely eliminate the nausea that plagued earlier products in the 1990s.
At first, these headsets (which range from ultra-basic cardboard models to £700 kits, and are powered by smartphones, games consoles and desktop computers) seem destined to be used largely for a hedonistic mix of gaming, virtual cinema and pornography.
But a handful of academics are exploring how they can be used to teach students.
The most obvious use of VR is in subjects such as engineering or architecture, where headset-wearing students can design and manipulate virtual structures. Conrad Tucker, an assistant professor of engineering at Pennsylvania State University, has received funding to build a virtual engineering lab where students hold, rotate and fit together virtual parts as they would with their real hands.
“What we want to do now is get down to the nuts and bolts,” he tells Times Higher Education, and allow students to do things such as use screws and hammers in VR as they would in real life.
Technology to simulate physically realistic environments – where objects drop and bounce as you would expect them to – has already been developed, he explains. “You have the gaming industry to thank for this,” he adds.
It is even possible to build a car out of virtual components and have it run based on laws of physics modelled into the environment, Tucker adds.
One question his project aims to answer is whether students learn as well in VR as they do in real classrooms, or whether without being physically present with their classmates, they miss out on developing intangible skills such as teamwork. “We really don’t know what level of immersion can be achieved in this virtual environment,” he says.
This new generation of VR headsets is only just hitting the market, so schools and universities have not had long to assess them. However, according to a meta-analysis published in 2014, students at school and university do learn better when they are immersed in virtual worlds.
The same year saw the University of British Columbia experiment with a full lecture in VR. Five students were given an earlier version of the Oculus Rift headset and sat in a virtual classroom where they watched a gaming lawyer deliver a lecture (his movements were captured with a camera, so that his virtual avatar moved just like him in real life – although his movements were apparently a little “funky”). His slides appeared on a virtual screen behind his avatar.
The students were overwhelmingly positive and felt that even this prototype set-up was an effective way to attend a lecture. However, there was one big problem – with headsets covering their entire field of view, the students were unable to take notes in the real world.
Virtual environments help students memorise material better because “you activate more of your brain because…it’s not a single channel [sense]”, says Xavier Fouger, senior director at Dassault Systèmes, a company that makes 3D models and simulations. This way all students, whether they learn best visually, or through touch or hearing, will be stimulated, he argues.
Dassault Systèmes has already built virtual reality models of the Mulberry harbours used in the D-Day landings, and collaborated with Harvard University to create a 3D model of the ancient Egyptian Giza Plateau. Students can peer into now-inaccessible tombs recreated from sketches and photos made by the archaeologists who unearthed them.
But the use of VR in humanities subjects such as English and history may be more limited and controversial than in the likes of engineering.
For a start, the bulk of these students’ time is spent analysing texts. It is unclear exactly what VR would add to reading Beowulf.
There is also a risk that in “recreating a lost building, for example, you might give users the idea that the virtual reality model is what really existed, though the reconstruction might be only hypothetical”, says Glenn Gunhouse, a senior lecturer in art history at Georgia State University.
Gunhouse, who has recreated a virtual version of the ancient Egyptian Tomb of Menna that his students tour using an Oculus Rift headset, thinks that one way to solve this would be to “allow users to toggle between modes, hiding and then revealing the reconstructed parts”.
He hopes to kit out an entire computer lab with Rifts, although this will not be cheap – the headset and powerful computers required to run high-end VR currently start at about £1,700 combined. But Tucker points out that this is not too far off what students might be expected to spend on textbooks.
Still, for the moment, the future of VR rests on how well it succeeds with gamers, rather than lecturers. “I hope it doesn’t become the next fad,” Tucker says. “If it fails in the entertainment industry, it could not gain traction in education, which would be a shame.”
Despite the obvious potential in some areas of higher education, no one THE spoke to thought that VR would somehow replace the physical campus, as it has for Wade Watts.
It could, however, help universities to optimise their use of space, reserving real labs for when they are truly needed. “Maybe repetitive tasks in a physical lab could be done in virtual reality,” says Tucker.
Then there is the question of whether students doing much of their degree in VR would miss out on the all-important social side of university. Tucker points out that the vast majority of students’ time is not spent in classes – and this time is crucial to their overall experience – although Gunhouse thinks that students may ultimately be able to have genuine social interactions in VR.
“Online, I didn’t have a problem talking to people or making friends,” Wade says of himself in Ready Player One. But, he says, in real life “I was a painfully shy, awkward kid, with low self-esteem and almost no social skills – a side effect of spending most of my childhood inside the OASIS”.