Disclaimer: I am a humble Spanish teacher. I am not a professional tech tester and my experience with VR headsets is limited to what I describe below. I paid for my own viewer, and have no affiliation with Google, Knox Labs or any party mentioned in this post. 

Google announced in May that it was entering the world of VR headsets and introduced Google Cardboard. It’s taken me a few months to get a VR viewer and explore the platform. I am glad I took time over the past week or so. It’s given me a taste of what is to come and it’s taken my thinking about teaching with this platform in some interesting directions.

Here are my initial thoughts based on a week of tinkering and think-ering…

The good: The Cardboard app for iOS is a fair introduction to the platform. The interface takes some getting used to in the real (gestures) and virtual (orientation) realms. My wife got a little nauseous but my children took to it with no problem. I was somewhere in between. Once you understand the three principle gestures (toggling between options, selecting options and return to menu), you are presented with enough options to explore some spaces both near and far.

The great: My 5 year-old has asked me “Daddy, can I go to Paris?”  This is his code for the Urban Hike tour of the Eiffel Tower and environs. My heart as a parent and teacher melted. Free trip to France on my 5 year-old’s initiative. Oui! Merci! I have to admit it is a fascinating perspective on the French capital. It worked on the same principle as Street View. Also included are Tokyo, Venice, New York, Rome, Jerusalem, Monte Carlo, London, and the Great Barrier Reef. My boys (ages 5 and 7) also took immediately to the Explorer functions, showing most enthusiasm for American Museum of Natural History and Endeavour Space Shuttle hangar. That kids are excited about the platform is everything. The expanded horizons and the potential to explore are dazzling.

The bad: The Knox NEXT I used was frustrating. The nosepiece bridge wouldn’t stay in place and the magnetic shims I need to use with my iPhone 5 were not strong enough to stay put. Also a peeve: I have to remove my trusty Otter Box case every time I put it in. I say “put it in” because any option of sliding it in and out as described were rendered useless by the issues above. The optics are satisfactory, but because the phone is not set in place and because the nosepiece slides out of its tab, the phone seems to drift. I also had difficulty selecting functions and moving from option to option. The magnetic washer did not get me anywhere so I had to reach my finger into the viewer to touch the screen. This was distracting and it contributed to the problems above where the phone would jostle in the viewer. There seem to be many different makes and models. There are even designs out there for the DIY set. I’ll do what I can to make this one work and investigate other options too.

Also a little disappointing: the Urban Hike function proved a bit buggy–refusing to load some times and not allowing me to scroll from one city to the next at other times.

The promise: I think the low-priced, bring your own device VR market could be huge. I’ll consider a few promising areas, function by function.

  • For Urban Hike: Drop two pins and have students make their way from A to B Amazing Race style. Have students trace a route from a 2D map in VR to work on map skills. Have a second student dictate directions to the VR viewer to work on critical city vocabulary, (in)formal commands and listening and speaking skills. Flip that script and have real-world copilot track the course of the VR pilot. Adopt the “Veo…/Creo…” framework to have students describe what they see and make inferences about how/why/when/etc. Have students compare and contrast a city they know to navigate with one of the cities in the app. Have students research a site in 2D and then give a 3D/VR tour. It might even be interesting to create audio files of sites that could be linked-to via QRs or other triggers.
  • For Exhibit: I love the mask motif. This fits perfectly with units we have in our Spanish 4 course on Mexico. I would like to see masks from Mesoamerican cultures. What if they could explore Mayan, Aztec, Zapotec masks–so rich in meaning? What if we could augment Octavio Paz’s “Máscaras mexicanas” with examples like these. I am sure the possibilities will increase as other collections become available. Beyond masks, the potential of VR exploration of sculpture and architecture are fascinating! What if a tour of Paris could lead to a seamless immersive experience of art in any of the cities museums? Same for Tokyo, Venice, New York, Rome, Jerusalem, Monte Carlo, London.
  • For Explorer: This function probably has the highest potential. Virtual field trips, museum visits, cave exploration, even travels to Mars? These are all a click and a twist of the wrist away. I imagine that as the app and the platform mature, one will be able to walk though a museum or Martian landscape, whether with a guide or self-led tour. I imagine that we will soon see VR-ready Street View vehicles out and about soon…unless they are already out. As I mentioned above, a seamless experience that combined elements of Hike, Exhibit and Explorer can’t be too far down the road.

The questions: Can we integrate VR into classrooms in a meaningful way, getting beyond the “Wow!” and into the “How?” Can we augment this virtual reality with substantive real questions about history, culture, geography, connectivity? Can we use this tool to explore beyond historical hegemonies to get students into places that are meaningful to them?

I look forward to exploring this platform with my students and colleagues in 2015-16 and seeing where it can take us.