Adventures in VR

I have witnessed some amazing things this past month.

I have watched movie trailers on the Moon.

I have seen Mars from its surface.

I have entered ancient buildings long since lost to the annals of time.

I have been inside a Van Gogh masterpiece.

I have even been in Tony Stark’s penthouse as Ultron attacks.

I have, of course, been playing around with a VR headset – a Samsung Gear VR to be precise.

And I have also, of course, been thinking about its potential as a new direction for game-based learning in ELT – is the hype justified?

With commercial headsets such as the Occulus Rift and HTC Vive now available and Playstation’s own headset on the way, the worlds of VR and gaming are meeting on a never-before-seen scale. Add in Samsung and Google’s mobile compatible headsets and it has never been so easy for people to experience VR.

Setting the Samsung Gear VR up is simple – you need an app installed on your phone, you attach the device to headset and out it on and it begins. A tutorial guides you through the controls (mainly done through a touch panel on the right-hand side of the headset) and shows you some of the features. You are then free to explore.

There is a definite ‘wow’ factor at first as you see a location up close and in detail. As you move your head, your field of vision changes and you realise you really are in a 360 degree virtual environment.

All of the locations above blew my mind, especially those beyond our own Earth. There was a real sense of ‘being there’ beyond what you would experience from a movie or picture.

There were limits too, however. The main one was movement. Without hand controls or motion sensors, the illusion was somewhat diminished as I stroked the side of my head to advance forward or go back. There was also the faint sensation of motion sickness if I ever turned my head too quickly. I am sure though that this would pass with time to get used to the VR environment.

The obvious opportunity for language learners would be the experience of a strong, realistic context. Instead of classroom role-plays with minimal props, learners could be virtually transported to an appropriate environment – a café for a classic role-play scenario, for example, or a boardroom for a business English group. The whole experience of immersion in a game world could be cranked up to 11 as the learner would live through the eyes of the in-game character. This could potentially facilitate some potent descriptions and re-telling of experiences afterwards.

However, I remain unconvinced. Why? Well, first of all, there is that classic question of “what problem does this technology solve?” Is it really such a barrier to language use to be doing a role-play in a classroom? Is there really any difference to the experience of playing a game when you play on a standard screen or through a VR headset? Once the ‘wow’ factor has passed, I am not sure there is.

The second issue for me was that of immersion. If anything, the immersive experience of VR goes too far. I have witnessed learners doing fantastic things with language when they collaborate together while and after playing games. This happens when 2 or 3 students gather around one device and share the experience. This would be impossible with VR as once the headset is on, you are literally closed off to those around you. Of course, groups of students could enter the same VR space but then why not just have them work together with the same laptop?

Of course, when we consider distance learners, VR could overcome the problem of isolation. Instead of working alone or struggling to be heard in a MOOC, groups of online students could come together in a virtual space and communicate headset-to-headset (almost face-to-face).

But the again, we live in a world where even with fibre-optic internet, people have connectivity issues in webinars so I expect similar issues would hamper online VR experiences. And then there is cost. These devices are not cheap and it would be a huge investment for schools and out of reach of many individuals to purchase them. Google Cardboard offers a cheaper option of course but smartphones are still required. Samsung’s Gear VR sits in the middle but demands a high-end device like the S7 Edge.

And what about software? I quickly ran through the demo features and would need to pay to get different apps to play around with. If we think about virtual environments for our language learners to experience, where will they come from and what will the cost of licences be?

So, that’s why I remain unconvinced. At present, I think VR remains inaccessible to most and is therefore likely to be seen mainly in large institutions rather than as another set of devices stored next to the iPads in a regular language school. Even when there is access, I have not seen enough to suggest that there will be any game-changing VR apps and/or experiences once the ‘wow’ factor has passed.

There is of course the caveat that I have only seen the Gear VR in action and the other more powerful devices may offer a completely different experience. However, the main concern for me is that the total immersion in the virtual environment comes at the expense of real interaction with others…

Of course, this could all change in the near future as developers and creative developers get to grips with the affordances VR offers. I remember a few years ago dismissing the potential game-changing capabilities of mobile devices and yet here I am today composing this post on a tablet. I also remember, however, dismissing IWBs as unnecessarily expensive lecturing tools and I haven’t seen much yet to change my mind.

We will see where it goes. We will wait for any interesting developments. But, for now, I’ll stick to my regular games on my flat 2D screens.


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