The Things I Will Do in the Name of Research - Virtual Reality
by Sheryl Wittig
When attending a conference, participants are advised to visit the exhibit hall, see what the vendors have to offer, ask questions, touch items that are usually viewed only in glossy catalogs, and if your timing is just right, bring home stacks of free books vendors didn’t want to pack up and ship home.
Being dutiful to the task, I stopped by the Lifeliqe booth and tried out their wares. More like a buzzard circling a tasty meal in waiting, I actually kept circling around this booth until their gear was up and ready to go. I’ve had a taste of virtual reality (VR) with my Poppy 3D camera/viewer, but never the full meal deal. And then I put on the Vive headset and things got real. Virtually real, easy enough to suspend reality and explore the International Space Station real. And I was hooked.
I pulled my librarian buddies in and they in turn wandered around with dinosaurs (complete with the “OMG” running commentary I shared with the entire exhibit hall) and swam with a shark kind enough to make some body parts transparent for closer examination. Wow! What an experience.
I wondered what this tool could do for my students. I noted that the recommended usage was for ages ten and up. Well, my oldest students, fifth graders, are ten….
As soon as I was home in Alaska, I was online shopping for those same VR glasses. Apparently, there are two main platforms in the high end VR world for PCs. HTC Vive is one of them. They work with PCs, and are supported with software available at their VivePort website as well as Steam (an online gaming platform my own children use). The other choice is Oculus Rift. XBox also offers VR, but I thought the PC platform would offer the broadest choice of software, and hopes of the eventual expansion to the Apple OS. There are other choices as well, and if you wanted to do some research, you could compare them, but I was so satisfied with my Vive experience that the fact that it was also the most expensive option didn’t seem to phase me.
Thanks to Amazon Prime, a big box arrived on my doorstep less than a week later. I rightly suspected that this was just the beginning of things we would need to replicate my experience in the exhibit hall. The high end computers in my home are Macs, and currently do not support VR. So the low end but new-this-year PC laptop had the honors of hosting the VR software and gear.
We could get some of the programs to work, like Google Earth, but the refresh rates were nauseating. Literally. While the standard refresh rate for video is 30 frames per second, to convince your brain, VR needs refresh rates of at least 90 frames per second! The difference becomes more obvious when you move your head and the images can’t keep up. It didn’t take us long to realize that, like in the movie Jaws, we were going to need a bigger boat.
So, in the interest of research - remember those fifth graders who were waiting to see if I could figure out if this was a viable school experience - I started to look for a computer that could do the job without bankrupting my family. Guess what? Really fast processors and high end graphics cards are expensive! I was shooting for the sweet spot - lots of power and speed but before the price point started leaping by thousands of dollars! Black Friday sales helped. I was hoping for a laptop (so I could easily take all the gear to school), but wasn’t willing to shell out an extra $600 for that mobility. Ended up ordering a Dell Alienware Aurora R6 Base with a GTX 1080 graphic card.
Knowing that a proper, powerful computer was headed our way, demand for the underpowered, nausea inducing setup dwindled. There was a little buzz when the optional Vive Deluxe Audio Strap arrived. It should be a standard item, since it helps balance the weight between the front and back of the headset, has one knob for easy fitting adjustments for everyone, and smart built-in headphones. But we were really waiting for a proper server.
The server arrived last week. We’ve been downloading a wide assortment of apps. Some work well with this medium, others less so. Google Earth VR is still the killer app. Much like the computer version, but so much easier to move about in. With remotes in each hand, there is no real ability to type, so it tests your geographic knowledge and skills. You only see labels when you flip to map (vertical rather than horizontal) mode. You also have the choice of operating in a comfort zone, where your field of vision is narrower. The more realistic, but potentially more nauseating mode allows the scenery to go zipping by in your peripheral view.
Also in the realm of what I had in mind for my library: Everest VR. The best feature of VR is having a true sense of scale, and that works perfectly on Everest VR. Similar to Google Earth, this app allow you to wander around Mount Everest. It includes various climbing routes, audio of sherpas, information on the physical effects of climbing at extreme altitude and more. And to keep everything in perspective, you can see tiny animated climbers working their way up the mountain. I was exhausted hopping from point to point along the various routes, and enjoying the view from every nearby peak.
Other museum ready apps, like the Nikola Tesla Experience, Lifelique’s VR Museum, and Earthlight: Spacewalk have great potential in a school setting. And then there are the apps less applicable in a school setting. Arcade games are very realistic (complete with sore muscles from shooting too many hoops and arrows!). Roller coaster and hand gliding experiences are still somewhat nauseating, since your brain is receiving messages that the body is moving, but there are no accompanying G-Forces.
VR is an immersive experience. Once you have your glasses and headphones on, it’s easy to filter out the rest of the world. I could barely hear the phone ring, or my kids complaining about their chores - for better or worse. There are slight annoyances: the system is tethered with a cable from the computer to the headset. If you have a tendency to rotate in the same direction, you can get tangled up, yet not able to see your legs. The resolution is not tight like the latest iPhone, but the quick refresh makes up for that - sort of. And because you are sharing this tool with family or an entire school, there is the consideration of all those different faces rubbing up against the padding on the headset...
The VR experience is very cool, nauseating, expensive, and personal. Could I justify such an expense for my elementary school library? In a secondary school situation, if there were a strong curricular tie-in and the resources to purchase it, it could be a great supplement. I could see many students benefiting from interactive, scalable 3-D models in science. But in an elementary school, I suppose if one were very careful about the apps and time students were exposed to, that would lessen potential unwanted physical reaction. I know many of my students would be nauseated, but would still want to extend their time with the VR headset. I didn’t see many apps - so far - that were closely tied to my district’s elementary curriculum. The logistics of scheduling 5-20 minutes per student would be cumbersome but worthwhile - only if you had the app that was the perfect supplement to the curriculum.
I don’t think I could justify spending half of this year’s annual library budget on VR. It was a worthwhile experiment, and now my family has a pretty spiffy, and early, Christmas present.