Flooding young minds through digital immersion
Whether it be for untertainment (mostly gaming and advertising), training and education or to explore yet to be built computer-generated machineries and architectural spaces, the solutions range from the full digital confinement offered by Oculus-type devices or 3D digital domes that englobe users within virtual reality streams, to more open augmented reality implemented as clever graphics superimpositions on mobile devices screens (including smart glasses).
Although virtual reality is not new, the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook last year gave a strong signal to content providers and game designers, as a technology due to take center stage in social networking, enabling virtual avatars to connect within digital wonderlands. Software industry heavyweights Microsoft and Google are into the game too, backing up fancy augmented reality projects such as Hololens or Magic Leap with the promise to have our lives digitally enhanced wherever we look.
Of course, the 5th European Immersive Education Summit (EiED 2015) had its focus on using AR and VR for better or augmented education, that is, offering pupils and students a richer education environment for a meaningful learning experience. Something that engages them more and that leaves a lasting impression for a better assimilation of the topics being taught.
"Learning is enhanced when intangible concepts are reinforced by tangible objects" said Walsh, taking as an example a Physics lesson where pupils could manipulate volumes and view complex shapes from within. "Virtual reality and augmented reality engage students at a deeper level than lecturing them on a blackboard, it grabs and keeps their attention like the best video games" he highlighted, "It gives learners a sense of presence, of being there".
Other keynote speakers such as Melissa A. Carrillo, Director of New Media and Technology at the Smithsonian Latino Center, or Dr. Bryan Carter, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, shared their experience using virtual reality sets to convey cultural heritage, helping their pupils recreate cultural events or immerse themselves into past sceneries of historical significance. Carrillo presented excerpts of her work on the "Día de los Muertos" while Carter gave us an overview of the "Virtual Harlem" project.
Both emphasized that pupils who had opted for the immersive teaching environment had retained more about the lessons, gaining a fuller view of the topic. Maybe because they had been more proactive, wandering around the virtual spaces set up for them, looking for information and working collectively with other avatars.
Indeed, several of the papers presented at EiED 2015 highlighted the increased attention levels and test scores obtained amongst students when using virtual reality. One put forward by virtual reality software and systems provider EON Reality reports test scores increased by 35%. Another paper presented by startup company Playto claims its EEG-monitored video games and training courses help kids and students strengthen their focus and understand how they can concentrate for other tasks in their everyday life.
A screen shot of GlowMaster, Playto’s first game yet to be released. (source Playto)
The dream put forward by virtual reality in education is that one professor could teach in the real world, say in a classroom, but assisted by a plethora of virtual tools and 3D representations. All this accessible by pupils from all around the world, as avatars sitting in a larger, fancier or even customized amphitheater, all being able to manipulate and interact individually with the objects being presented to them.
In fact, virtual professors could step up the game as a paper "Virtual Agents’ Support For Practical Laboratory Activities" suggested. In it, Brazilian researchers discuss the use of virtual agents (in the shape of autonomous avatars) to expand educational capabilities beyond existing academics to one tutor per student, offering specific support in practical laboratory activities.
Virtual reality environments and augmented reality are certainly incredible tools, and although their specifications still need to mature, industry has already found many great applications. But isn’t it a risky bet to commoditize them through education?
Presenting at European Microwave Week, Computer Simulation Technology AG (CST) lets designers walk through their PCB board, following complex signal paths to identify the sources of EMC issues.
Sure, pupils may have better scores in Maths, Literature, Engineering and what else… but if this immersion scenario is to become mainstream through education, then one augmented lesson after next, pupils will spend their days into fake environments, connecting only with avatars rather than humans.
Blend in all the "social" avatar networking that could be nurtured by internet giants, advertising companies and all the fantastic digital life scenarios put forward by content and game creators, there may not be much time left for real life, let alone a meaningful one. College connexions used to be the most durable and impervious to time, but those may now be lost for unrecognizable avatars.
Walsh is well aware that digital addiction is lurking in this environment, where users are much more captive at a way deeper and exclusive attention level than with today’s already addictive mobile screens.
So what about digital addiction by the millions?
At the end of his keynote, Walsh mentioned addiction, citing the case back in 2010 of a Korean couple who had left their 3-month old baby starve to death as they cared for a virtual child in a computer game. "I have lost some friends to VR addiction", testified Walsh, "they couldn’t go to sleep, they couldn’t stop to eat, and that was in the mid-nineties when the graphics and the immersive experience of video games was much less compelling" he recalled.
He then called the research community for more studies on the effect of immersion on the brain and how it can impact the psychological state of frequent users. "Maybe in the future, virtual reality systems should integrate physiological sensors to detect addictive uses and issue warnings" he suggested.
So yes, it would be time to look at the moral and ethical issues around VR before drowning young minds within untested digital territories. Although a boon for hardware and software makers, rushing VR into education would leave little choice to entire generations of future consumers, but that of being flooded with data wherever they look, pretty much the same way most of us feel compelled to stare at screens day in, day out, whether it be for work or leisure.
Is this really enhanced life?
Visit the Immersive Education Initiative at www.immersiveeducation.org