With the vast majority of VR content being developed with a focus on gaming and entertainment, it’s easy to forget that there’s a tremendous opportunity to bring educational VR content to the masses. Most industry experts agree that VR has great potential for general education, which could ultimately have a profound impact on humanity as technology and content distribution progress.
Some excellent educational content has already emerged — a few particularly admirable examples that developers can learn from include Woofbert’s Courtauld Gallery, DrashVR’s Titans of Space, Curioscope’s Great White Sharks, Tarraco VR, and The Body VR. The key to creating exceptional educational VR content like this is making users feel an emotional connection with the subject itself, which results in a lasting episodic memory. I encountered this myself when I had a chance to “visit” the Courtauld Gallery, a Gear VR experience app published by Woofbert, a company run by a former MoMA curator. This powerful experience inspired me to share my thoughts, what developers can do to create equally wonderful educational VR content, and the possible impact it could have on the future.
An Artfully Crafted Experience
Critical to creating fantastic educational VR content is recreating the most realistic experience possible. Woofbert did a great job of this — I have only seen the Wolfson room and its paintings in a virtually recreated environment in Gear VR but in my mind, I can still recall the fireplace along the wall, the wooden floor, the exact location of Gauguin’s Nevermore painting, and even the view outside the windows. If I were to fly to London today to visit the gallery, I would be walking into a familiar place.
Once inside the Wolfson room, the first thing I noticed was the painting by Édouard Manet; A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. You can take a closer inspection of the painting, study the brush strokes in detail, and also enable the audio guide (Neil Gaiman provides the voiceover, which is an absolute treat). But that’s just the beginning. Truly unique educational VR content takes advantage of the medium to create experiences that wouldn’t be possible without the technology, which Woofbert did masterfully — with a quick tap of my finger, I began floating inside the painting I was viewing.
A few seconds later, I was metaphysically transported into Manet’s imagination of the spectacle happening at the Folies-Bergère. I realized I had become the gentleman in the mirror represented in the painting (who likely is Manet himself, by the way). I quickly realized how appropriate this is, as this VR scenery in essentially a representation of Manet’s personal experience at the Folies-Bergère, interacting with Suzon the bar maid, and watching the spectacle happening behind the subject.
A Lasting Impact
My recall of the event was so vivid that I was able to remember the color of the barely visible shoes the trapeze artist was wearing, and how Suzon attempted to hand me the “exotic” oranges imported from the Americas as I glanced over the basket. I had such a visceral memory of the overall experience —almost haunting — that I was left with a level of appreciation that I didn’t have before for Manet’s work. I even ended up watching a video lecture on this exact painting on Khan Academy. This VR experience is perhaps the closest anyone can get to Manet’s emotions and sense of presence at that moment in the Folies-Bergère.
Research has shown positive improvement on episodic memory when subjects are presented in an interactive VR environment. Episodic memory, in turn, may trigger episodic learning, which results in an overall change of behavior. This could potentially lead to students performing better in school. I imagine a future where art history classes are taught using VR, with teachers guiding students through a virtual museum, in a social VR setting; a virtual field trip, if you will.
But will VR headsets replace traditional teaching methods anytime soon? No, not likely. However, semantic learning coupled with experiential materials delivered through VR may make education that much compelling (and perhaps more importantly, fun), and have a long-lasting impact on the way students learn. And with this technology still in an early stage, developers who get in on the ground floor have the potential to truly participate in an educational revolution.