It all began with the moons of Jupiter. David Whelan, the CEO of Immersive VR Education, was sharing Titans of Space, a virtual-reality tour of the solar system, with one of his daughters. Typically, she had no interest in science, but after removing her VR headset, she came out enthusiastically naming the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. She had absorbed information in ways Whelan had never seen her do through school. That was the moment he realized, “There’s definitely something here.”
Since then, Whelan and his company have been leading the VR education revolution — one he believes is much needed. “Education hasn’t really changed,” says Whelan. “For the past 200 or 300 years, students have been given textbooks or photographs, and teachers say, ‘Read these texts, look at these photographs. We’re going to do a test at the end of the week.’” For Whelan, virtual reality offers not just a chance to free students from the confines of school desks, rote memorization, and exams, but also to help improve how they learn, through experience and active participation. “When you’re an active participant in something, that’s going to stick with you and you’re going to retain that a lot more,” he says. Here’s how IVRE’s future plans are shaping up to help make that happen.
Bringing the Past Alive, Prepping Students for the Future
IVRE has begun living up to its “learn through experience” motto with its award-winning documentary Apollo 11 VR, which allows users to experience the Neil Armstrong mission to the moon. It’s one of many historical moments Whelan wants to bring to life. “We plan to cover every type of major historical event,” he says while teasing their next project: putting you on the Titanic as it hits the iceberg.
What’s even more intriguing about the future of reliving history in VR is that not every experience will be “one size fits all.” Take the example of teaching World War I to students: “You can put the students in the trenches. They can walk around and get a feel for what it was like to live in the trenches back in 1916. They can talk to the soldiers and interact,” imagines Whelan. From there, they can then customize the experience for different students – younger ones would end things there, while older students could experience following the soldiers onto the battlefield.
VR won’t just be able to educate students about the past. It can also prepare them for the future — jobs, in particular. For example, IVRE is working on virtual medical training. One obstacle the medical field faces is that training machines that help students prepare for complex surgeries can be incredibly expensive; not every school can afford them, or, if they can, they can’t afford enough machines to meet demand. Enter VR. “What we can do is recreate any machine, and they can use that machine on a virtual reality headset and kit,” says Whelan. Training can even be enhanced with real-life stakes to better prepare students for what they will face in the real world. “In virtual reality, we can make it a lot more visceral. Instead of just looking at a machine, we could have a virtual-reality cadaver or a virtual-reality patient on a bed, and you’re operating on that patient.”
Reinventing the Lecture Hall and Study Group
One of IVRE’s biggest projects is Lecture VR, which reimagines the college and university experience with virtual lecture halls that exceed any real world ones you’ve ever been in. Fully networked, teachers and students from all over the world can come together for enhanced online courses. “If I was talking about marine biology,” Whelan offers as an example, “I can give a class in a classroom on the sea bed. Then I can pull in an interactive killer whale and the students can interact with that.”
In that way, Lecture VR will work like WordPress on steroids, with a large catalogue of plug-in experiences that teachers can customize for the needs of a course. “We’ll have thousands of locations and thousands of assets,” says Whelan. “They could be animals, or objects, or they could be medical tools. Our locations could be anywhere. It could be the surface of the moon, or it could be Mars. Teachers pick and choose what they want, and they drag and drop it in,” he says.
Lecture VR is also designed to take advantage of an aspect of our virtual future that has yet to gain more attention. “The social aspect of VR is going to be very, very big,” Whelan says. That’s why IVRE has ensured that it offers facilities for students to meet up in virtual study groups — to compare notes, practice, or experience recordings of past lectures. “We see social as very big in the education space,” Whelan says.
The Future of VR Education Is Coming (Eventually)
The breadth of the VR education experiences Whelan and his company are spearheading is impressive, but the CEO knows that just because they’re creating new educational experiences now, it doesn’t mean they’ll be widely adopted right away. “Educators are probably going to be the hardest people to really get on board.” he says. “Education, in general, is very slow in adopting new technology. The personal computer came out back in the late ’80s, but it wasn’t really until the mid-’90s when nearly every school had PCs that children could use.” He expects VR education to be adopted at a similar pace. “People are talking 2020 or 2022,” says Whelan, “when virtual-reality education will be a massive component of virtual reality in general.” But once that day comes, education will never be the same.