What the Coming Educational VR Revolution Teaches Us About the Tech’s Future

Imagine the following scenario: A fifth-grade science class has just begun and the teacher makes a surprise announcement — today the students will be dissecting a frog.

I’m sure you remember dissecting a frog as a kid — the sour-pickle odor of formaldehyde, the sharp scalpels slicing into rubbery skin. You don’t have to be an animal rights activist to grimace a bit thinking about it.

But here comes the paradox. In this scenario, like-minded fifth-graders who are queasy about cutting open animals are excited to participate in this dissection. Indeed, no animal was harmed when the specimens were collected. What’s more, the teacher promises the students that they won’t have to clean up a messy station afterward.

How? Thanks to the paradigm-shifting creations of zSpace, an educational VR/AR company, students can harmlessly dissect an animal on an interactive screen known as the zSpace 200. Students wear a special pair of glasses equipped with sensors and use a stylus that allows them to engage with a virtual image that can be turned or even disassembled.

By importing VR/AR into the classroom, one minute students can explore the anatomy and organs of an animal without harming it, and the very next build and test circuits or set up experiments that test Newton’s laws.

For young students who have been inundated by tech in almost every other domain of their lives, this form of learning comes naturally.

“Kids say, ‘Well of course it should be like this.’ They believe they should be able to reach into a screen, grab something, pull it out, and interact with it,” said Dave Chavez, chief technology officer of zSpace.

While VR is often discussed as a gaming technology, the gaming applications of VR are simply the first wave in a sequence that will profoundly shape the way we experience content over the next five years. Educational startups have been working on VR material for classrooms ranging from kindergarten through medical school. Current estimates project that the global edtech market will reach $252 billion by 2020; VR will capture a big chunk of this pie.

The next step in the democratization of knowledge is VR.

As for parents (and the rest of us), we continue to adopt the tech slowly. In 2016, only 6 percent of Americans will own a VR headset. While this can be attributed to cost and other barriers to entry that are being knocked down as the technology evolves, learning more about how VR is being used to reshape student engagement and communication teaches us more about how it will soon shape our digital experiences by serving as a conduit for previously impossible connections.

“Virtual reality puts people first,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg after his recent demo onstage at Oculus’ Connect Conference. “It’s all about who you’re with. Once you’re in there, you can do anything you want together — travel to Mars, play games, fight with swords, watch movies or teleport home to see your family. You have an environment where you can experience anything.”

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