“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
This phrase is used to describe how the tools we create provide a framework for thought leading to a change of human habit. Simply put, technology changes us. Remember when cell phone use was an up-and-coming trend, and suddenly almost everybody had a cell phone? Now, our mobile devices provide us with directions, advertisements, and an endless array of entertainment. You see, our cell phones (or tools) shaped a culture with instant access to information (and instant gratification, too). Just as the development of radio, video, and the internet created new collective consciousness, another transformation in digital media promises to shape how we communicate, learn, and play.
Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) devices are now available at affordable prices. VR, AR, and MR are presented through computer-generated simulations allowing users to experience virtual environments with user interfaces that provide visual, auditory, and sensory experiences, transporting users into a different reality. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) are worn over the user’s eyes, and as they move their head the perspective changes with their movements. Hand controllers with haptic feedback are used to interact with the environment further. These user interfaces create a remarkably realistic sense of immersion in a virtual environment.
Using virtual environments to communicate is an ancient concept that has fascinated people throughout history. Ancient temples and cathedrals were versions of some of the first virtual environments, as they were created to evoke emotions and present narratives that allowed the audience to experience a different reality. Staged plays with elaborate sets, actors in costumes, and special effects such as smoke and lights have been used for centuries to immerse the audience into a virtual environment. In modern history, Walt Disney created narrative environments with extensive spatial interfaces and virtual realities when he built Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other theatrical experiences that created fully immersive and seemingly real environments (Pearce, 1997).
Now, most computer-generated virtual environments are created with low fidelity, 3D models, and 3D rendered environments using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The CGI method to create virtual environments was first used in the 1980s and became the primary tool for video game development and experimental simulation training by NASA and the US Military. Creating virtual environments using CGI is a time-consuming process requiring a high degree of skill, expensive software, and powerful computers. Even with state-of-the-art technology life-like realism remains elusive for CGI virtual environments.
In recent years, massive strides in technology lead to increased computing power, improvement in screen resolutions, and enhanced graphics, allowing immersive VR, AR, and MR to the forefront as a practical method for capturing and presenting photorealistic virtual environments. Photorealism provides users with actual photo images displaying real environments and actors, whereas, CGI looks computerized and somewhat distorted, and requires a lengthy production process due to extensive graphic design and animation.
Learning from virtual reality experiences increases memory and skill retention.
Like all evolution in technology, the emergence of VR provides new opportunities to create and deliver more sensory-rich information. Creating effective learning content in VR requires a next-level approach compared to other educational mediums. Content creation for VR takes a nontraditional approach, unlike print and video where the user’s attention is intuitively focused on the text on the page, the framing of the video, or the duration and pace of the audio lecture, with VR the user can look away from the intended subject and disregard the pace and timeline of the content, but still be immersed in the experience. This dynamic makes the creation of VR content more complex than the creation of other media content, but it also produces a more realistic experience.