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Will VR and AR ever be anything but niche?

Muse's Revolt video in 360 is spectacular

I remember a few years ago being blown away by virtual reality. I had just spent 4 minutes or so in a dystopian future watching protestors clash with robotic riot officers, drones hovering overhead, the chaos of permanent night and a brilliant soundtrack to match. This 360 music video by Muse that I was immersed in whilst wearing a Google Cardboard headset was the future of everything I had decided. Via the VRSE app (now Within) I could also take walking tours of NYC or fly through an asteroid field. "The future is here!" I proclaimed and felt much like Marty McFly when about to be eaten by that great white.

"The future is here!" I proclaimed

Since that memorable occasion, I have been a big fan of VR and increasingly AR. I have played games, watched films, taken expeditions and discovered artifacts all without actually leaving the room. I have hunted Pokemon all over town and led children on AR treasure hunts. The quality of the picture, the realism, the experience is getting better all the time and more and more money is being poured into the industry. Can you sense the big 'but' coming..?

As an educator, I understand how good VR/AR could be for the learning process - students being able to 'feel' the content, not just 'learn' the content. It could be an effective way to connect and engage with learners. I get it. However even as a fan, I am hugely disappointed that AR and VR haven't crossed over into mainstream education and really started hitting its potential. And before everyone starts inundating me with messages about this product and that great thing, I am very aware of the products that are out there in the education space and know that there are plenty of options. But they remain very niche, expensive, and always leave me feeling a little 'meh' after the experience. 

Recently at BETT there have been increasing numbers of stands dedicated to AR and VR, and I always try them out. But in all honesty, they remain an expensive add-on. Yes if you have lots of money in school then it's like buying any new toy. And I consider myself an early adopter when it comes to technology - yet I haven't found the one thing yet that crosses over from niche expensive classroom gimmick to regularly-used-and-can-justify-the-price-tag piece of equipment.  Yes it's great for students to be able to take a tour of WW1 trenches to get a feel for what it was really like, or see for themselves the effects of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. But as a teacher hasn't it been my job for years to make these things happen anyway, through the power of my words and the myriad of available 2D content online?

For me, Google Expeditions is the closest thing to becoming a mainstream educational app or set of immersive devices. You can buy a complete set of devices, headsets and storage cases from resellers, or relatively easily set up your own set of devices. Even stay in the app without the immersive experience on your existing devices. The need for goggles is taken away and there are thousands of brilliant expeditions and lots of content. Yet in this current financial climate, when it comes to the full immersive experience kit, the cost of this is still putting schools off - and rightfully so. Most schools can find dozens of better uses for the money, and in my experience, VR kits are still on the wish list rather than the essentials list. (Not to mention the setup and maintenance of the equipment and it becoming someone's additional extra responsibility). Even as a large MAT we have back-and-forthed the cost vs benefits discussion and haven't overwhelmingly been convinced.

AR is trying its best and perhaps closer to 'crossing over' to mainstream classroom life - and with many schools having access to tablets there are plenty of AR options out there. Aurasma was always my favourite and since becoming HP Reveal it has become more polished. Yet by and large the power of these apps remains in the hands of the tech-minded teachers or departments, is used once or twice and then join the scattergun collection of redundant apps taking up storage on the iPad. I worked at a school years ago where for a whole year we had a huge push on AR - from wall displays to book work, school tours to concert programs - AR was everywhere, and it was very impressive. Yet now, not a single trigger image in sight. Staff have moved on, the next big thing came along, the next priority got prioritised and AR got kicked into the long grass.

My point is, I guess, that as a fan of AR and VR I am hugely disappointed that no one has found a way to make it truly mainstream in education - in terms of cost, simplicity and effectiveness. It remains an expensive impact tool that adds to student engagement for a lesson or two, then once a few devices stop working, you don't quite have a class set any more, teachers aren't fully trained and the IT person moves on, it sits in the cupboard with the old projectors and broken laptops awaiting repair.

Within is an excellent VR app

I feel bad writing this, as I love Google Expeditions and will regularly open Within to see what's new. I still love Muse's Revolt video and regularly visit Tension Virtual Reality in town. I want VR to be an educational success and believe it can be. I just don't think anyone has hit the spot yet. Get the Google Expeditions roadshow into your school and see for yourself - amazing. AR is getting better all the time (Ghostbusters, anyone?!) and is hugely enjoyable. But yet so is going on field trips. QR codes have spluttered and coughed along for years now and I can't help that feel that AR will run a similar path - peaks and troughs of usage by the select tech-minded few, an afterthought or the thing that you want to use if you ever have the time to learn how to do it.

We were having a similar conversation in the office, and to quote @guyshearer on the matter, who knows a thing or 2 about technology adoption:

"I think the element that is missing is “doing” - I always wonder - where is the iMovie for AR? When will someone release a product that allows students to make polished and impressive AR (or indeed VR) with the same ease Apple brought to digital video? There is so much focus on the hardware and the same old content - why aren’t we empowering students for what will become the next important medium?

Think of it this way…. if AR and VR do take off…. children in reception now will find digital video just as quaint and “basic” as secondary students find any media that isn’t video now… the next generation will not be a YouTube generation (I’m sitting opposite one of them now) it will be an AR generation - they need to be content creators and understand the medium"

In private industry with money to spend - undoubtedly there are huge success stories. In education too there are lots of schools venturing into VR and AR with success. But show me the roadmap to make it mainstream, affordable and simple enough to become part of day to day life rather than a showy off impact gimmick used by a few for a couple of lessons.


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