September 26, 2016

Gimmick or Godsend (1)

Gimmick or Godsend: AR/VR in Education

Marybeth Green (Associate Professor of Instructional Technology and Graduate Coordinator for the Instructional Technology Program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville) and her colleagues are actively researching 3D augmented and virtual reality as it plays out in the K-12 classroom. This story begins with a conundrum.

The Problem.
Dr. Green noticed a phenomenon occurring in classrooms using augmented and virtual reality: “We have found is that there is a "wow" factor when people first see 3D images; but this enthusiasm often obscures the quality of the content,” which can be outright poor.

The Backdrop.
Dr. Green and her colleagues recently pursued a small grant to purchase augmented reality books, books that also required the purchase of AR/VR viewing apps. They acquired more than 100 books. Using an iPad, the student could view augmented reality 3D images or even click off the AR image and explore a virtual reality simulation right in the classroom. According to Dr. Green, who is putting a list of these resources together, about 20-25% of the available AR resources provide students with a combined mixed and virtual reality experience.

The Discovery.
“Initially, preservice teachers find the content enthralling. When seeing 3D, it is so unexpected; so when they see 3D images emerge, they don’t see the quality of what’s there. It is only after repeated exposures that they begin to examine the content and find its weaknesses. Some of the content is quite good and builds on students' understanding of the content, but some is hardly worth the effort or price,” explains the researcher. Inservice teachers appear to be more discriminating, however. “It’s nice, but it doesn’t really help with comprehension or learning—some of the content is a bit disappointing,” she adds.  “Teachers are much more appreciative of the content that really does enhance the value and understanding of the textual content.”

The Parry.

Dr. Green and her associates identified a workable method to get past the unreasonable ‘wow’ factor of middling quality AR/VR content,: they provided teachers with a basic academic rubric that could be used to sift less-than-stellar AR/VR content out of consideration.  The rubric appears to be effective. “It enables us to ask the question: ‘Is this content a gimmick or godsend’ ”, she states.

September 19, 2016

Unity Invests in Education

Unity is the well-known and respected development platform for games, virtual worlds, virtual reality, and interactive simulations. Unity development has long been a staple in student clubs, high school and vocational school curricular offerings, professional/ professional technical institutes, and even university computer science and game design programs. So why the tremendous rise in educator interest over the last two years at major ed-tech conferences? Clearly, increased fascination with gamification, virtual reality, STEM, and student-created content helps explain this swelling of customer interest.

Another factor behind the surging interest of educators is that Unity used the recent ISTE conference venue to announce some education-specific breaking news:
A refreshed mission. Unity now explains that they are “dedicated to working with educational institutions worldwide to help foster innovative learning and exploration in variety of areas including game development and interactive experiences and content, including virtual reality.” 
A structural update. Unity has recently formed a dedicated GlobalEducation unit.
A certification for education program. This includes Unity-certified developer courseware, certification exams, and even certification events. 
A training and certification partner program.  Unity Technologies aims to give “academic institutions, training businesses, and resellers the opportunity to tap into the growing community of Unity developers seeking professional development and certification.” 
New academic pricing. Aimed at supporting game development programs, education software license bundles (i.e., educator pricing) are now available for purchase by academic institutions. 
Free Resources for Educators. Unity has developed an Educator Toolkit aimed at helping educators to create, tailor, or shape a Unity teaching curriculum for their classrooms. 
An educator grant program. Free Unity education software licenses to help K-12 instructors implement game development courses.
On another note, I noticed that Unity is not shying away from the emerging virtual reality market either. I find them as one of the most knowledgeable vendors on the floor in relationship to VR in eduation; they are also knowledgeable about the stubborn vision health issues that can plague VR implementations in education.

Although still a small team, Unity appears to be on target with a seven-pronged strategy aimed at investing in the education market.

September 12, 2016

VR @ InfoComm

Frankly, this year’s InfoComm hoopla—from an educator’s perspective—left me underwhelmed. There were no blockbusters, killer educational technologies, nor grand entrances as in past years. There was little to get us to stand to our feet and applaud great educational potential. This was a tepid year—a year of stolid incrementalism at best. Given the recent hubbub that is usually associated with virtual reality nowadays, I was surprised to find a subdued presence for VR at InfoComm 2016. In fact, the VR presence may have been a bit smaller than in previous years at InfoComm, if memory serves me well. I was expecting more from the VR meme at InfoComm 2016. I didn’t get it. Nevertheless, here are some of my VR observations:

  • 360° cameras and software. The fresh appearance of a slate of 360° and VR cameras caught my attention. Nokia featured their OZO camera, while Elmo touted their QBiC camera with its free VideoStitch post production software for creating 360°VR videos. Kodak was pushing their PIXPRO 4K editing software for producing spherical videos, while Ricoh showcased their low-cost Theta 360 s. I should mention: I noticed educators in significant numbers trolling the booths dedicated to 360° and VR cameras, with outspoken interest in having student use such cameras to produce educational content.
  • Stampede offered a “wild west” shootout corral. The popular corral experience, run by staffers from VRstudios, showcased their multiuser wireless virtual reality solution. Although they expressed no interest in the ed market whatsoever, feverishly grinning instead about the bullish gaming and entertainment market, I envisioned three implications for the ed market: 1) the wireless capabilities make a lot of sense for the ‘freedom’ demanded by the ed market: (tethered products don’t do as well, historically); 2) the multiuser nature of the VRstudios technology is an advantage, bringing cooperative learning to virtual reality. (Imagine an entire class meeting on the surface of Mars to learn about gravity, survival, and the challenges of exploring the planet with a mobile rover); and 3) it will make teachers and children sick. It made me sick, and that practically never happens. (They need to figure this one out: see my article, “I love VR; I hateVR.”

  • Canon Eye 2 Eye. Canon physically involved passersby in their interactive Eye 2 Eye VR dance and motion experience, which was quite impressive at first glance. Implications for the ed market: this technology could eventually evolve into an interactive environment that would be extremely motivating for physical education. I know… it’s a stretch.
  • Christie. In an interesting twist, Christie showcased their Mystique suite of virtual reality-assisted design tools. (I wonder: did they know that Mystique is the beautiful shapeshifter in the X-Men comic series? Oh, well.) The demo was tucked deep in the bowels of the Christie booth experience, and was hard to navigate to, so I imagine that not many people saw it. Still, their design tool was interesting, because it represents Christie’s venture into software solutions, not just hardware solutions. Implications for the ed market: VR can make inroads in education as a tool to solve problems not only in design, but also in visualization (before and after views), simulating dangerous experiments or conditions, or conducting historical “what ifs.”

Although Infocomm 2016 offered little overlap this year to the world of education, the time I spent foreshadowing what is possible is instructive. For now, most of the VR companies at InfoComm (camera companies excluded) feel that education is not on their short-term market horizon. And that's okay, because most educators still sense that virtual reality is just too impractical, experimental, and expensive.

September 5, 2016

3D @ InfoComm 2016

I’ve been an educational technology director for 25 years, with a significant track record in large educational technology and AV purchases. I  returned from walking every aisle of InfoComm 2016, searching for promising trends, developments, and products that might offer value for the education market.

What does an educator see? I look for both memes that make sense in education as well as the practical solution: the product that potentially meet a need or solves a pain somewhere in my organization. Something crisply new and eye-catching can also spark a burgeoning idea in an educator’s mind. And at times, we chuckle when we see the emperor’s new clothes (vaporware, hype, or solutions in search of a problem to solve).

The Third Dimension at InfoComm
Even though there is still interest in this technology in higher ed, a muted presence of 3D technologies was the case at InfoComm 2016. Two booths featuring autostereoscopic displays were underwhelming, and a few other glasses-based 3D stations were easy to forget. One large display manufacturer with an impressive floor presence and lots of traffic, Central China Display Laboratories, was the exception. Yet the content they were showing was ineffective, bordering on useless. This company has a featured LED installation here in Colorado, at the University of Denver. I wish they were showing that content instead.

Again, InfoComm 2016 seemed like a celebration of incrementalism—simultaneously in its best and worst form. But who knows? As they say, sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.