virtualreality

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The hottest new technological advancement — virtual reality — could even impact the world of higher education. 

Since Facebook bought Oculus, a virtual reality gaming start-up, for two billion dollars back in 2014, virtual reality has dominated news cycles and tech speculation. Many companies have released variations of the VR headset, with new features added on every year.

Penn professor Stephen Lane is the director of the Computer Graphics and Game Technology (CGGT) Masters Program at Penn and the president of soVoz, Inc., a company developing virtual reality technology for training and gaming applications. He first started working with VR in the mid-90’s, on a video game system, and has worked in some capacity with the technology since then.

He is excited about the possibility of the application of virtual reality in education.

“There’s still challenges on the technical side in terms making the experience comfortable and something you can do for long periods of time,” said Lane. “But putting that aside, the immersive nature of VR, that you can be transported to another place in time, can give you an opportunity to explore other cultures or put yourself in the place of other people. That idea of presence can be very valuable.”

The ability of VR to seemingly change the user’s environment could create a dynamic learning situation for any subject.

“It could be language learning or something even in terms of basic physics,” he said.

Because VR imparts the feeling of a physical experience, students could potentially use it to conduct their own virtual experiments without the confines of the classroom.

“Sometimes people talk about it as experiential learning, or learning by doing,” he said. “I think that’s another way that VR can be used in educational settings. You’re exploring and learning over time.

Even though VR technology is generally not available to the average person, Lane thinks that we are currently in the middle of the second wave of VR technology.

“It has been popularized by the Oculus Rift and the Vive and all,” he said. “The technology has certainly changed a lot. It’s becoming more and more mainstream.”

However, VR has to surpass obstacles of accessibility before it can be implemented as a teaching device.

“People are still looking for what, in the game business, we would call the silver bullet game, or the killer app. You know, the thing that people want and people want to buy the hardware to get that experience. But there’s lots of people looking and all different applications. So it’s an exciting time to be a developer and consumer of VR content.”

Lane stressed the versatility of its possible applications.

“It could be for education, it could also be for travel, or training,” he said. “If you’re studying anatomy, you could see the internal structure of a mannequin or a cadaver by just looking,” he said.

VR is not currently used in education, but the technology is a burgeoning aspect of VR development.

Rachel Huang is second year Masters student in the CGGT program who interned a visual effects studio last summer in their newly-opened VR division. She discussed the possibility of using VR to aid medical training for aspiring doctors.

“As a surgeon, you can actually mimic the sorts of cuts and stitches you would do on a patient,” Huang said about the technology. “And because all of your physical motions are being tracked in space, you can be evaluated on whether you hit the mark or not.”

Aside from use as a teaching tool of skills or a way to convey information, VR can even be used to teach human empathy in users. Huang cited a study that measured the effects of users looking into a mirror in VR while inhabiting a virtual avatar that was a different race from their own.

“When your avatar was a different race, or came from a different group than you, it was a really effective way of building empathy for that other group,” Huang said, “which I think says a lot for the immersive power of VR.”

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