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Enter another world at Ohio State’s virtual reality lab

Web developer Chris Wallace plays a Virtual Reality game in Mendenhall Laboratory on Nov.13. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Visiting faraway places, exploring space or touring the human mind are just a few of the possibilities an instructor could have in his or her classroom by using virtual reality.

Ohio State’s new virtual reality lab, which opened in July and is currently located in Mendenhall Lab, aims to help teachers and students understand the use of VR and augmented reality in the classroom, and help them apply it.

Ian Anderson, an academic technology consultant for the College of Arts and Sciences and head of the lab, wants VR to be more than a one-time use.

“We want to integrate this into a natural part of the curriculum, not try and force it or create something gimmicky,” Anderson said. “We want this to be like experience-driven education.”

VR is a relatively new technology that transports the user into different worlds with the use of a headset, which blocks out light from the user’s surrounding environment. The user engages many senses at once, like sight, hearing and touch, to have a completely immersive experience.

A lot more people can teach this and integrate this into their teaching than actually think they can. There are people on campus who understand this technology and can teach this technology to you and who can facilitate things. – Zach Harvat, a doctoral candidate in English, who teaches a video game analysis class

Augmented reality, known as AR, is similar but gives the experience of our everyday world. The best way to think about AR would be to imagine the small characters that you can see through your camera using a snapchat filter like the dancing hotdog, for instance.

Anderson said using the devices is the first step in understanding how these tools could be used in the classroom and beyond.

“I have had some people pick it up and instantly feel comfortable, and I have had demos where it is 15 minutes in and I am still trying to explain the beginnings of it,” Anderson said. “The key really is to get the idea of VR and AR into instructors and students and try to drive the curriculum through that.”

VR headsets have become more affordable and many students use them in their daily lives through gaming, he said. With the headsets, teachers could instruct students in an entirely different way.

“It is a new way for students to learn. I think that instructors are constantly looking for a way to break through,” Anderson said. “Why not do something that can relate to students, who know how to use them, and carry that over from their personal life?”

Zach Harvat, a doctoral candidate in English, teaches a video game analysis class and sees the possibilities that VR could bring to all classrooms as well as his own.

“For the past few decades, people have been popularly talking about VR as this technology of the future that will be able to give us complete immersion into a video game,” Harvat said. “But there is also a lot of educational technology that is being developed using VR.”

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, VR is used in the classroom to teach students about Kenyan refugee camps and explore the ruins of Machu Picchu, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Anderson said the opportunities for VR in the classroom are near endless.

“There is already an existing suite of apps out there that are perfectly acceptable to be used within the curriculum. There are also a lot of [developers] out there that would love to partner with people to come up with apps for a specific course or a specific major,” Anderson said. “Really, it is just getting the word out there that this isn’t just for entertainment, it can be educational, as well.

Harvat agrees with Anderson and said the main issue is gaining notability and understanding.

“A lot more people can teach this and integrate this into their teaching than actually think they can,” he said. “There are people on campus who understand this technology and can teach this technology to you and who can facilitate things.”

Hopefully, instructors who are reluctant to bring new technology like this into the classroom become more comfortable, Anderson said, adding that breaking the stigma of VR being just for games is the main part of getting this into a classroom.

“I think once people get their hands on it and see the educational value to it, then it will start to take off,” Anderson said.

The lab is currently moving to a new space that has not been determined, Anderson said. More information will be coming once a new space is decided.

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