Virtual reality (VR) has the potential to transform how we learn, by making immersive and interactive content available to anyone, anywhere and at any time.
London startup Immerse is one of the leaders of the VR learning movement. The company has developed a platform to create bespoke live learning experiences for every industry and educational establishment to teach everything from aircraft repairs to science classes.
CEO Tom Symonds began to understand the power of virtual education during a six-month stint as business development director at an online English school called languagelab.com. The company had designed an English teaching service on the Second Life platform.
"Although it was a proposition that was flawed in numerous ways in terms of its usability, what that original team had come up with was a brilliant idea," he remembers. "How do you mix gaming and learning in a way that makes you lean forward?”
The technology at the time was too immature to make the business a success, but the engagement levels of students in the virtual world convinced Symonds that this was an idea worth pursuing.
He developed it into Immerse, a VR-based platform that offers live interactive learning in 3D environments. The product combines multiplayer access through both VR headsets and desktop browsers with webcams, with integrated voice, analytics and reporting.
The prospects for the platform were transformed in 2016 when the releases of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive made VR a viable consumer technology. Immerse launched its multi-user learning platform the following January.
"We can join together a number of learners either through the VR headset or through the browser in 2D, but do it simultaneously," says Symonds. "To this day, that's still a feature of the Immerse platform that's completely unique.
"We think the power of the solution is magnified further by turning it into a collaborative experience, where the trainer is sitting in a different location from the people they are training. The implications for that in terms of the enterprise are huge in terms of cost saving and efficiency."
VR training for industry
The company used to it design a bespoke training scenario for drilling engineers working at oil refineries in remote areas of Kazakhstan that struggle to attract human teachers.
When the price of oil crashed, so did the company's revenue, but the Immerse team had a number of other applications for their platform.
In the last year, they've developed two key training proof of concept designs: a tablet press disassembly scenario for pharmaceutical giant GSK, and a submarine simulation for defence company Kinetic that brought training back to shore.
For the latter, the Immerse team spent three months working with two submariners to understand the system, the interior of the submarine and the relevant set of consoles.
Users would be placed in a scenario where they would look through a periscope to see a giant cruise liner bearing down on them, which they had to evade by descending deep below the surface.
The exercise involved a 65-step procedure and communication with individuals serving four different roles.
Traditionally you could do this in a classroom, an online module, a simulator or the submarine itself.
Immerse's solution is designed to bring all of those options together. All the users are strapped up to Vive headsets. Another person can assess or guide them through the process using either a headset or desktop browser. Multiple additional users can follow the action through a browser.
"The moment you put that headset on you cannot think about anything else. Particularly if you're in a place with colleagues, and you’re talking to each other, you're interacting, you're solving a problem together," says Symonds.
The future of education?
Immerse is also working on content for a number of leading universities in the USA. VR also has its advocates in primary and secondary education, but the state sector has traditionally been slower to embrace new technology.
"Education hasn't really changed much in the last few hundred years,” says Marleen Slingenbergh, a science teacher at Greenford High School, a London secondary school.
"Most of the time it's still a teacher standing in front of a group of children who are sitting in chairs. If you can get kids actively involved, we all know from life experience that we learn better when we're actually engaged in something."
Immerse is initially exploring applications for science and engineering departments, where the enhanced visuals and the physical interaction provided by controllers would be particularly beneficial.
"If you're studying viruses and bacteria and the way they interact, and antigens and antibodies, and all the different parts, students struggle to remember all the different terms because they can't visualise them," says Slingenbergh.
"If you can blow up these things into bigger parts that they can zoom in on, and really get a sense of scale and of shape, that could really help you understand the concepts and how those bodies interact with each other."
It would also give her a tool to teach the laws of physics that children often struggle to envision, such as the creation of momentum through velocity times mass.
"If you immerse them in a virtual world where they play with different objects of different masses, there's a much higher chance that you'll reach every child in the class," she says. "It's a differentiation tool as well for different abilities."
Built-in analytics could quantify how quickly students understand new concepts and hold on to that knowledge, as well as measure their level of situational awareness.
The experience has been improved by developments in inside-out tracking, which uses sensors on headsets and hand controllers that can track movements more accurately than the traditional method of cameras in stationary locations.
"The challenge on the learning and development side is that there's a certain element of caution," says Symonds.
"[People who work in education] know classroom-based training and they know computer-based training and obviously they have very sophisticated learning management systems in play. Trying to integrate something like this is for most [of them] quite a big leap."
Immerse has developed a second product that Symonds hopes will bridge the gap: a software development kit (SDK) that customers can use to create their own training tools, whether they’re entirely new scenarios or VR versions of existing models.
Limitations of VR learning
The headsets and the software may be affordable for private universities and global corporations, but the costs remain prohibitive for state sector education.
School budgets are tight, and so are those of the students. Just over 40 percent of the students that Slingenbergh teaches receive pupil premium funding, a government grant for disadvantaged children, and many don't have internet access at home.
There may be more potential for VR learning in the classroom than the home, but if the resources are limited then so will be the benefits
"It looks fantastic, but if it always is one or two headsets while the other kids are sitting around waiting," says Slingenbergh. "As a teacher, that classroom time is so precious. If you've got 30 or 32 kids in a room and you've only got one headset, you need to work out how effective is that."
Most of the students do, however, have their own mobile phones, which makes the cardboard VR headsets a more realistic option.
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Buckinghamshire startup MEL Science has shown how this can work. The subscription service delivers materials and tools for children to conduct their own science experiments. They then don a VR cardboard headset with a smartphone inside to virtually explore and manipulate work on a molecular level.
The cost of VR is not the only concern. Doctors have warned that staring at screens could have an impact on a child's psychological health and mental development, and controlling a classroom of children wearing headsets would be no easy feat.
Slingenbergh believes it would be a mistake to dismiss the benefits of the technology by overstating these fears.
"I was thinking about 30 kids with VR headsets on running around the classroom, hyper after a lunch on sugar," she says.
"There are potential issues for behaviour management there but it's nothing that a good teacher can't control."