The biggest question in educational virtual reality: “Is it all hype?”
There's surely no lack of excitement—and neither is there any evidence that this expensive and enthralling technology will help students. Yet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists ($1.3 billion of investment already this year) are betting that VR’s immersion factor can snap students out of their daydreams when they can see dry class subjects brought to digital life.
The latest and perhaps shiniest effort comes from Ondrej Homola, co-founder and CEO of the the app Lifeliqe, which displays 3D models of natural phenomena on tablets, in augmented reality and in virtual reality.
Launched in the Czech Republic in late 2015, Lifeliqe is a platform that houses a repository of more than 1,000 moving models created by eCorinth. These models can be displayed one of three ways: “flat”—moving model on a tablet screen—augmented or virtual. They allow students to investigate the inner workings of nature, e.g. the circulatory system of a shark, the muscles in a human hand, the veins in a leaf. The models move in repeated patterns, looking something like a GIF with better shading. The shark swims, the hand flexes and the leaf blows in the wind, all to imitate how the thing exists in the world. Students can zoom in and out on specific facets or turn the models, as they would if they could move closer to a shark or peel back its skin.
For the augmented reality display, students can use a tablet to see how the 3D models would move in the world. Through the device’s camera, the Lifeliqe app shows a computer-generated image sitting on surfaces in the real world. I set a beetle in a coworker’s hair.
To view Lifeliqe’s new virtual reality content, I looked through an HTC Vive headset. The first scene I saw was a verdant jungle with a sparkling river, in which squatted a giant toad. I waved the Vive’s haptic controllers around the room to direct my movements. I flew, charting the course with the controller, upwards and sat on the toad’s head, examining its eyes. Switching scenes with the other controller, I could explore the interior of the Hubble telescope, the anatomy of several other jungle animals, a floating basketball court where I could catch and throw the balls, dinosaur habitats and finally the deep ocean, where I saw the shark model again. Homola called the experience “creating environs around the flat content” because each of the objects in Lifeliqe’s virtual content is an expansion of the 3D models on a tablet screen.
The last scene I saw in virtual reality may be the first thing students see when Lifeliqe VR comes to market. I was in the beta version of a beautiful virtual laboratory with white walls, microscopes, icons representing different environments and a teleportation station that would take students to the various scenes within Lifeliqe. According to Homola, the laboratory will come to function as a hub for classroom experiences. Students will start there and choose their place or animal—bugs, space, dinosaurs or ocean—to navigate to an environment where those things will appear. Those functions weren't in place at the time.
It would be difficult to mistake Lifeliqe’s scenes for the real world, but the models are true to life. I could examine all the details of a praying mantis and watch muscles in the neck of an apatosaurus as it strode by me. It didn’t look like real life, but I was still interested and immersed. I was also pleasantly surprised at not becoming nauseated, as I have with a number of virtual reality experiences in the past.
So why convert successful computer-generated content to VR? “We believe it encourages more absorption in the content, more immersion,” Homola said. “We think it will increase attention spans.”
VR and AR device-makers think the same. Lifeliqe, a company of fewer than 10 people, has been selected as an official partner of the HTC Vive. HTC will invest an undisclosed amount in the company to ensure it can survive the early struggles of the VR headset market, where sales have yet to take off. Lifeliqe’s VR content will launch on the Vive exclusively, though Homola has left the option of other platforms open.
The partnership also arrives with a new tool from the company: Lifeliqe Creator, which allows users to integrate the moving models into the Lifeliqe presenter view, a Powerpoint lookalike. Users can’t, at this point, make their own models. The team designed the product with a teacher’s lecture in mind, for a moving diagram to appear in a slideshow and making a presentation less dull. A triceratops could walk next to text describing its horns and diet.
“We want to move out of ‘cool consumer gadget’ into a platform that users can use to create,” Homola said. “We’re lucky to work with engaged teachers that want to create their own content.” Creator is an extension of Lifeliqe's capability to integrate the models into digital textbooks.
Homola hopes to convert the customers paying for flat content— roughly 15,000 people in the United States, Latin America and Europe—into virtual reality users. Subscriptions to flat content start at $9.99 a month per device, and the price for VR content has yet to be determined. Homola said his strategy is to entice teachers to use the content and convince their districts to purchase a large-scale license. Lifeliqe will begin piloting the content in schools in the fall of 2016.
I don’t think anyone believes reality-bending technologies have reached their full potential in education, whatever that potential may look like. Homola doesn't. Though his company is focusing on virtual reality now, he believes that augmented reality will, in the long-term, be the biggest game changer in education because it will be easier to integrate into both pedagogy and everyday life. He has planned to further develop Lifeliqe’s augmented reality capabilities after distributing its VR content to schools.