Understanding VR Options in Education, Part 2

Second of a 2-Part Series by Iowa BIG Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships Troy Miller.

In my previous post, I provided a link to the industries that are rapidly adopting Virtual Reality (VR), and I identified the various VR tools available to educators as well as use-cases. I focused on primarily the lower-end VR options (3 Degrees of Freedom), which have promising use-cases for education and are the most affordable. In this post, I’ll discuss 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) VR options and implications for student learning. Before doing so, I’ll start with a story.

During the summer of 2016, I was approached by the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML), a local staple of the Cedar Rapids community. The NCSML was familiar with our radical public education model, where we solicit real problems and projects from the community and allow students to meet core and elective class credit by doing real things outside of the classroom and following their passions to choose projects that they actually want to do.

Crazy Idea

Iowa BIG students Isaac Miller (left) and Naomi Miller (right) pose in front of a banner at the NCSML promoting the upcoming exhibit. Isaac, a junior in high school, leads the team and works primarily in Unreal Engine 4, while Naomi, a freshman, creates 3D assets in Blender. (Yes…vis-a-vis my progeny)

I have to admit, I didn’t know how we were going to accomplish what the NCSML had in mind, but I had confidence in our students, staff, and community to help make it possible. Their proposal? Create a fully immersive VR experience for an upcoming 2018 exhibit, titled “Guts and Glory- The War Train that Shaped a Nation”. Not only had this never been done by high school students in the US, or perhaps world, but we also didn’t even know what software, programming, or hardware was involved. Naturally, my response was “Sure!”.

Let me unpackage what you just read.

  1. A community Partner challenged high school students to create a significant piece (but not mission critical) for an exhibit that would launch 20 months later.
  2. Nobody knew how to accomplish the task. What we did know was that it was possible.
  3. Students weren’t forced to adopt the project, but were invited to participate based on their passion.
  4. The NCSML was more than willing to fund the project because, if successful, it would pay for itself in spades. Furthermore, they believe in community-infused education.

As usual, the 2016 school year kicked off with our annual Partnerpalooza, where vetted Partners came and pitched their Projects to students. All Partner Projects were then made available in our revolutionary Project Pool, and via our internally-developed Learning Management System named Project BBQ, students identified Projects that they were passionate about, they self-formed teams, and they met outside of their mothership (traditional school setting) at the time that worked for the Partner, teacher, and themselves. I won’t go any further into the full story (save that for another time), but let’s fast forward 17 months to see where we are now:

  1. Iowa BIG students recently demoed for the NCSML the first release of what we internally call “VR War Train”. The Museum’s team commented that not only was the demo done on time, but it surpassed their expectations (youth can do so much more than we adults think they can).
  2. Students have another 3 months to build and refine the experience.
  3. Students will launch their portion of the exhibit in April 7th, 2018, but not before showing it first to the Ambassadors of the Czech Republic and also Slovakia, as well as author Kevin McNamara, whose book inspired the exhibit.

Staff of the NCSML demo VR War Train in late December, 2017 prior to the exhibit launch in April 7th, 2018.

The following are the nuts and bolts of how your students can learn to create content for immersive 6DoF VR.

6DoF VR Hardware

Primarily one hardware provider dominates this category of VR. I’m going to focus on the HTC Vive because that is the hardware platform chosen by Iowa BIG. Before discussing the Vive, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Oculus Rift, a company that was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

Oculus Rift

While Oculus has  primarily played in the 3DoF scene, they are coming out with Project Santa Cruz that will permit 6DoF. Due to Facebook’s money infusion and worldwide platform, I expect the Santa Cruz Project to take the VR world by storm starting sometime in 2018. Having said that, Oculus does not yet have a commercially viable 6DoF device.

HTC Vive

Vive hardware requires a dedicated room (or space) with mounted sensors as well as a dedicated VR-capable PC. Vive is currently the most immersive because it maps the size of space you have and has sensors mounted on the wall or on stands at both the front and rear of the room. This setup will set you back a minimum of $1,100, including the PC. I know this because I bought such a setup for my basement den to enable my kids to use and develop content for the Vive. The Vive also comes with two handheld controllers. For the purposes of the NCSML exhibit, students are assembling two custom-built PCs with $800 graphic cards in each, made necessary by the anticipated heavy load of viewers at the exhibit. Our special thanks goes out to one of our super-star mentors, Scott Dix, who consulted our students both on hardware as well as software.

6DoF VR Use Cases

  1. Ultimate immersive experiences spanning time, space, history, biology, you name it.
  2. Ultimate immersive gaming experiences.
  3. High-end exhibits, trainings, custom creations, or demonstrations, be it for the NCSML, architecture field, medical field, or many others.

Student Software Programming and Development

Beside’s Iowa BIG’s model of integrating student passion with real community problems, the real magic happens when students are allowed to trial, fail, trial again, and ultimately succeed using cutting edge technologies that most people have never heard of. The two main things you need to know about creating content for the HTC Vive are that you need software to create 3D images and software to animate the images. NO programming is needed! Here’s what Iowa BIG uses:

  1. Blender– This 3D modeling tool is FREE. Our students made everything from WW1 helmets to loaves of bread to munitions via Blender. These “assets” they created are very life-like. It’s highly likely that most junior high or high school teachers have never heard of Blender, let alone have Blender experience, so you’ll have to learn the same way our students learned- self-paced online tutorials. Students create Blender assets on both PC and Mac.
  2. Unreal Engine 4– This 3D animation tool is FREE. I’ve played around with Unreal enough to know that this is a deep tool, filled with blueprints (the closest thing to programming) that can get you rolling with any type of desired outcome. Frankly, though, it’s complicated. But not for a student who is passionate about figuring it out! This same software is used by many of the most popular game creators worldwide. Direct the students to the tutorials and learn with them. Students benefit from having a high power desktop or laptop…powerful Windows-based computers are typically most cost effective.

There you have it…a brief primer on Understanding VR Options for Education. The rest is up to you. I hope to see you at the launch of “Guts and Glory” at the NCSML in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, April 7, 2018!

Follow @IowaBIG on Twitter for updates on this project, as well as the other 60+ real community projects our students are working on. If interested in seeing how the Iowa BIG model works for rural Iowa communities as well, check out @IowaBIGNorth.