By Dr. Kate Goldberg, Collegiate Faculty, Data Analytics, UMGC
Did you know you can get a time machine, a shrinking machine, and a replicator all in one device? Using a headset that is less than 20 square inches and weighs slightly more than a pound, you can take a trip to Angel Falls in Venezuela, inspect the left ventricle of a human heart, or make a Tyrannosaurus Rex appear out of thin air. Such is the magic of virtual reality.
Science-fiction authors have long been imagining devices that would enable users to immerse themselves in an alternate world of their own design, transporting between past and future and manipulating their surroundings in various ways. In his 1935 work, Pygmalion's Spectacles, author Stanley Weinbaum introduced a device resembling a gas mask that allows wearers to transport themselves to another reality.
In the late 1950s, this concept came to life with the development of the Sensorama, an immersive, multi-sensory device where users would sit in a cabinet to view a screen, listen to sounds, smell emitted scents, and feel air from oscillating fans.
Over the next three decades, the technology improved by streamlining the hardware and creating more realistic visual experiences. By the 1990s, the growth in video game technology led to the development of the ancestor of the headset that is worn today. In 2010, the first prototype of the Oculus Rift was created, and Facebook purchased the company in 2014.
Since then, the video game industry for virtual reality has exploded. Currently, hundreds of video games are available to play in VR with multiple brands of headsets. The global VR market is expected to grow 27 percent annually, from $6.1 billion in 2020 to $20.9 billion in 2025.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, many industries were forced to quickly adopt new technologies that allow their employees to train and learn from the safety of their homes. The education and training fields were already experimenting with immersive learning in the classroom, and since the pandemic, more universities, colleges, and schools have been bringing history, science, and social studies to students via VR headsets like the Meta Quest 2, which costs around $400.
As the industry has grown, the opportunities for educators to expand the student experience in the metaverse has also improved. The quality of the virtual campus, the 3D objects students can interact with, and the scenes are becoming more realistic.
Innovative educators are looking past the video game entertainment value of VR and focusing on cognitive outcomes, such as feeling present and positive toward learning. In one study, researchers found that students who used VR headsets to immerse themselves in the learning materials could answer more questions correctly about the lesson taught and reported higher feelings of presence.
In another, researchers focused on the student’s feeling of presence, which happens when the user accepts the virtual reality at a subconscious level. They found that students who used the headsets expressed perceptions of reality more often than students who simply watched videos.
These innovations are driving educators and technologists to find ways to draw students into learning experiences they would not have otherwise. Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Oculus, is partnering with software platforms to create “meta-universities.” By creating digital twin campuses, virtual classrooms, labs, and student lounges, these partnerships between educational institutions and software providers create opportunities for students to learn about topics they might never have imagined.
In 2022, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) launched a two-year pilot program with VictoryXR to build a digital twin campus. Students in Speech 100 are learning how to create meaningful communications to an auditorium of listeners without feeling the physical pressure of stage fright.
During one synchronous class meeting, they learned about effective informational speeches while soaring over the Matterhorn in Switzerland and hearing the facts about the famous mountain.
Students who take the introduction to astronomy course will be able to zoom in on solar systems and examine stars. UMGC faculty in criminal justice and investigative forensics are partnering with VictoryXR to create a crime scene investigation laboratory where students will have the opportunity to find clues and collect evidence all within the comfort of their homes.
UMGC students in the pilot program will access remarkable, innovative learning materials like these, and the faculty are excited to discover more learning opportunities as the pilot program progresses. Stay tuned for updates as UMGC students continue to explore this new learning environment.
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