Grabowski Lectures on VR in the Classroom

By Timothy Hamling, Staff Writer

Ever since personal computers became an affordable consumer product in the late 20th century, technology has continued to evolve and find ways to integrate with education. Computer labs turned into personal laptops for students, and personal laptops turned into tablet devices. With technological advances increasing at a nonstop pace, the future of educational technology, or EdTech, sits at a precipice: the precipice of virtual reality.

Manhattan College students and faculty got a taste of the “virtual world” on Thursday Oct. 5 with an event titled “The State of EdTech in 2017.” Organized by Shawna Bu Shell, Ph.D., an assistant professor from the School of Education, the goal of the event was to highlight some interesting new technologies, and explain how they could be integrated into an educational setting.

The event began with an overview of virtual reality technology presented by Michael Grabowski, Ph.D., of the communications department. Virtual reality, sometimes shortened to “VR,” is the ability to create and interact with virtual worlds.

Often, VR is implemented using mounted headsets. These VR headsets can be as simple as the $5 Google Cardboard, which is a box that allows you to use a smartphone to create a virtual environment, or can be as advanced as the $500 Oculus Rift, a headset that tracks body and hand movement and delivers haptic feedback and stereo sound. Devices such as the Rift have also seen increased usage in the development of VR videogames.

With education the key point of the event, Grabowski made the point that VR headsets can easily be applied to any classroom environment. “VR, it’s a great medium for seeing spaces that are difficult to get to,” said Grabowski.

An example application Grabowski gave for a science class could be a virtual tour of the international space station. “If you want to demonstrate what [it] looks like on the inside, you can watch a video, or you can put on these VR goggles and see all around you and feel like you’re actually inside that vehicle.”

However, VR has many uses beyond science classes. “There was a 360-video [The New York Times] created called ‘The Displaced’ and that video shows refugee children and how they’re living in war zones and in refugee camps,” Grabowski said. Videos like this can be useful for a history lesson or someone studying current events. “This technology can bring students outside of the classroom and into these other spaces virtually,” emphasized Grabowski.

The presentation went on to describe virtual reality in more detail. The technology we see today in devices such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, which is another VR Headset, has evolved from older devices such as the Kinetiscope— a VR predecessor developed by Edison in the 1880s. VR headsets set themselves apart from other video projection methods because, as Grabowski said, “we can’t look at these things together. VR is an individual experience.”

VR technology still has improvements to be made and hurdles to overcome, such as problems with latency (keeping the virtual display synced up to real time without lag), and visual pixilation (producing an image that is as high-resolution as possible). However, these are minor improvements, and will only get better as new technology is created.

Manhattan College is beginning to tread the virtual water, and has acquired a few pieces of VR technology. “Our communication department just purchased a VR camera and our students are going to experiment on shooting 360-degree videos and understand how that’s different from the traditional two-dimensional screen,” said Grabowski. Grabowski showed off the camera, called the Ricoh Theta V, during his presentation.

Grabowski ended by arguing that VR is no longer technology of the future— it is technology of the present, and can easily be integrated into many aspects of the classroom. However, VR is not the only technology that schools are adopting.

The event went on to discuss 3D Printing, an area of mechanical design that Manhattan College has already adopted. Companies such as MakerBot are trying to bring 3D printers into all levels of schools, from elementary to collegiate.

By using simple computer-aided design software, known as CADD software, anyone can create and print a physical object using 3D printers. Grabowski pointed out that 3D printing can easily be combined with VR to further aid and immerse students.

“You can create and design something in CADD and then put the VR goggles on and go into the design yourself,” said Grabowski. “Rather than seeing the design from a flat screen, you can see it from a 3D space and see how it is operating.”

The ability to interact with a virtual object before printing it from a 3D printer and physically holding it has uses in engineering settings both inside and outside the classroom.

After the presentations concluded, attendees could test out some of the technologies talked about, and talk to distributors about how the devices could be integrated into a classroom. MakerBot had a table set up with a 3D printer that was constructing various models as students and faculty watched on, as well as other machines and tools that were entirely printed and created by the machine. These included an Archimedes screw, models of clouds, gears, and pulleys, and even a replica of Hogwarts castle from the Harry Potter book series.

Tucked away in the corner of the room was a table that featured a fully operational tech demo of the Oculus Rift VR headset. The two-minute demonstration set the user on an underwater shipwreck, and showed them swarms of fish, stingrays, and even a close encounter with a humpback whale. Students lined up to try out the headset for themselves and immerse themselves in the virtual underwater                                      environment.

“I’ve experienced 3D printing before and I know about VR, but I never got to experience [VR] first hand and that was pretty crazy,” said junior Joe Doyle, who majors in broadcasting. The sensation of seeing such a detailed, albeit computer-generated, environment was a new one for Doyle. “It felt like you were kind of actually there. It was pretty ridiculous.”

The focus of the EdTech event was to show how new technology can be brought into the world of education. Grabowski and Doyle were both convinced that virtual reality and 3D printing would soon be brought into Manhattan College’s classrooms. Doyle said he could imagine virtual reality being used to help students prepare for the working world. “[VR] can give you virtual representation of what a field is like … if you’re going in for a job.”

Technology often needs to be adopted by the masses before it is accepted into the everyday setting. Despite the steep investment of a headset such as the Oculus Rift, Grabowski insists that nearly any student has access to VR capabilities.

“I think any student who has a smartphone can download free VR apps” said Grabowski. “For as little as $5, you can buy these [Google Cardboard] devices and put your phone inside there and that’s minimal cost to getting inside this technology.”

Virtual reality can be an incredible tool, useful for anyone and everyone. Watching a 360-degree video is the simplest way to experience this technology for yourself. You can explore the depths of the ocean or the outer reaches of space— anything is a possibility when you’re experiencing the virtual world.