Understanding VR Options in Education, Part 1

First of a 2-Part Series by Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships Troy Miller.

As I look at how Iowa BIG is using Virtual Reality (VR), as well as the other worldwide use-cases for VR in education, I believe a primer for educators will help you understand the various levels of this new playing field.This is not a blog about all the industries that are starting to use VR, however is here to stay and schools need to get on board for the sake of preparing students. For the record, using any new technology platform (calculators, computers, pads, VR, AR,) in education has immense possibilities as well as potential pitfalls if not used in a thoughtful manner.

Virtual Reality sets itself apart from, say, a standalone computer screen experience because the user can become immersed into an experience, and interact with the scene in fundamentally new ways. The more immersive the experience, typically the cost of the associated equipment goes up. This blog is not a comprehensive review of all models, but rather a baseline to help educators understand their options and applicability in the classroom. More immersive VR environments activate more Degrees of Freedom (DoF). I’ll categorize your options and use-cases by either 3DoF or the more immersive 6DoF which provides the extra degree of reality by adding additional sensors (and cost).


Google Cardboard: The most mainstream and low cost VR experience is Google Cardboard, which can be purchased for as little as $6 on Google’s website. Of course, you require a compatible smartphone to slide within the cardboard to enable the experience. Google has a cheat sheet to help you identify the correct phones as well as how to setup the experience. Limited interaction with the VR content is available via buttons on the phone in the visor. The cardboard is a great way for students (and teachers) to first experience VR.

3 DoF Use-Cases:

  1. Traverse time, history, biology, space…you name it. For example, Google claims it has over 500 Expeditions. Here’s a nice

    Students can sit in a classroom and immerse in a way that is superior to video and pictures.

    list of actual apps to consider for the classroom.

  2. Have students create a 360 video of your class, school, city, etc. and upload to Youtube. Various cameras work for this. Our Iowa BIG location on Boyson Road in Cedar Rapids recently purchased a Vuze, courtesy of funding through the Linn-Mar Foundation, so we’ll see what they come up with this coming year. Personally, I’d like to buy the Vuze’s upcoming waterproof case and dive Belize’s Blue Hole again…
  3. Students interested in creating their own app for Cardboard can go here. If you want your students to develop completely next-level skills, have them interact (or you interact) with your community and have students create an app that someone actually wants. Be sure to read Part 2 of this blog to see how Iowa BIG students are creating VR content…it will blow your mind.

3DoF with Controllers

The more immersive, the more solitary an experience.

Google DayDream:  Google more recently came out with the DayDream headset that also comes with a handheld controller, running about $99. Again, it requires a smartphone, however a few specific smartphones have been designed to support VR experiences. Google Daydream adds additional interactions with the VR content than the Cardboard due to the controller.

Sony Playstation 4 (PS4):  The gaming industry plans to leverage VR heartily, and the winner of the VR console wars so far is Sony, for about $450. Word of Caution: Playstation’s website indicates that PS4 VR is not for children under 12 years of age. A couple differences to note between the Sony and the Google Daydream are that the Sony PS4 VR bundle has all the equipment you need, and no need to insert a phone, although most people have a smartphone, so maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Another significant difference is that the PS4 has two controllers, a camera, gyroscope, integrated audio and accelerometer. These extra tools give you a more immersive interaction with the VR world. Another Word of Caution- the more immersive an experience, the more solitary the experience. For example, headphones relegate a user’s interaction to only the other people who might be playing with them online, and not the actual people in the room who are watching your activities via a regular monitor.

3DoF with Controllers Use-Cases:

  1. In addition to the previously referenced use-cases, students will have access to even more VR titles because PS4 is the only major gaming console that implements VR (Nintendo and XBox do not). For example, you won’t be able to experience Apollo 11 on any other VR-capable console. Don’t get me wrong…this is a serious gaming console, but it has its classroom uses as well.
  2. More impactful, students may gain inspiration to develop their own, more immersive, applications or games (read how Iowa BIG students are doing this in Part 2 of this blog). The problem here, to my understanding, is that Sony actually has to approve your content to be made available for your console (read “Self Publish on Playstation Network). In other words, you can create something for Sony’s format, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it on your Sony console.

Click here for Part 2 to read how Iowa BIG is implementing fully immersive 6DoF VR.