How can the real environment of the classroom interact and intersect with the virtual environment for deep learning and fun?
Virtual reality is becoming ubiquitous and affordable with people asking how it might be used to offer students, of all ages, wondrous learning experiences. When I scroll through my twitter feed, I see all kinds of educational technology (EdTech) articles on virtual and augmented technologies, usually featuring glossy stock photos of children and young people sporting the wide-mouth VR gape, a kind of visual short-hand for just how amazing an immersive VR experience can be. Most of the articles that accompany these images are about how the special affordances of VR (its properties or possibilities for action) can be used for learning – for example, virtual field trips to amazing places on and beyond the planet and the ability to manipulate the scale of virtual objects from the smallest (exploring a single human cell that appears as large as person) to the largest (zooming in and out of archaeological sites from an aerial view to a single in-situ artefact).
While there is imaginative thought in EdTech, evangelist articles, there is also a surprising lack of evidence on what actually happens when immersive technologies are introduced into real live schools.
There is research from the field of computer science and health on lab-based or clinical experimentation using immersive VR with children but this research often has small numbers of participants and can be limited in its implications to everyday ‘natural’ settings. Classrooms are dynamic natural settings where learning, in all its complexity, is influenced by a range of factors from the individual differences of students and their socio-cultural and geographic backgrounds, peer interaction, mandated curriculum and assessment options, and the pedagogy or the instructional choices teachers make every time they plan a lesson or step into a classroom.
So what happens when you provide students and teachers with the opportunity to use virtual reality for learning?
How can the curriculum be tailored to use immersive virtual reality for deep learning and how can we assess if VR actually enhances learning?
How do students and teachers experience VR in their classrooms?
Importantly, given the developmental stages of learners, how can we use this type of technology safely and ethically in schools?
The purpose of the VR School Study is to create a robust, evidence-informed dialogue on these questions based on the data collected during our collaborative research with teachers in real schools. The project involves openly sharing insights and the resources so that the use of VR in classrooms across subject areas. The focus is on developmentally and pedagogically appropriate and imaginative uses of the technology for deeper learning. We welcome dialogue from students, teachers, policy-makers, researchers and developers on using VR in schools and other educational settings.
This website is regularly updated with new insights and resources so follow it or check back every so often to find out what we are up to.
Erica Southgate (PhD), VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education, University of Newcastle, Australia.
Developing units of work that allow for student VR content creation involves: (a) sequencing and scaffolding learning for curriculum-mandated content and skill acquisition; and, (b) allowing time for students to develop new technology expertise via problem-solving, creative experimentation and collaboration.
In the Athelstone School VR project, primary (elementary) school students use the 360° VRTY platform to create a travel journey that demonstrates Italian language acquisition and knowledge of Italian culture. The learning objectives derive directly from the Australian Curriculum.
Below is the unit of work ‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City), developed for the VR project by Athelstone language teacher Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo. The unit of work was implemented this term with primary school students in Year 5 (10-11 years of age).
‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City) unit of work
Learning Intention – to use and develop directional language in the VR platform whilst creating different scenes in Italian cities.
Introduce the booklets and go through it as a class (VRTY student handbook)
Re – familiarize themselves with the platform and look at where students were in Term 1 in terms of importing 360 degree images, information markers, portal markers and importing pictures etc.
Allow time to work on their world.
Students to work on their information markers, limit to at least 4 per picture or scene.
Information marker must have information about the landmark they have chosen to use, information must be in English and have the Italian translation.
After information markers have been used and checked by the teacher students to use portal markers so they can move through scenes.
Once portal markers have been used to move in and out of scenes directions will need to be written in to allow others to use the world as a new traveller to Italy. E.g. – Excuse me where is the Colosseum? Scusa dov’e` il Colosseo?
Use directional language learnt in lessons and put them in their scenes.
Portal markers will need to transport the visitors to the location.
Proposal to use the headsets and phones to view the worlds they have created in the VRTY platform. Proposal to use the 360 camera for producing own images to import into the VRTY platform.
Informing – Gather information from a range of sources (ACLITC043) and represent information appropriately for different audiences using a variety of modes (ACLITC044).
Creating – Create imaginative texts for different audiences such as digital stories using characters, places, ideas and events (ACLITC046)
Translating – Create simple bi lingual texts and discuss what translates easily or not (ACLITC048)
Systems of Language – Use grammatical knowledge to interpret and create meaning in Italian (ACLITU052)
Language variation and change – Recognise that language use varies according to the context of situation and culture (ACLITU054)
Can student import a 360 degree image correctly.
Can student import an information marker and use effectively.
Student can import a portal marker and use effectively.
Student can use directional language appropriately to navigate through the scene.
Was able to work collaboratively in pairs or small groups.
Used the student handbook effectively for assistance if required.
In addition to the Languages Curriculum outcomes the unit of work develops the following Level 4 General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum:
Investigating with ICT
Locate generate and access data and information: locate, retrieve or generate information using search engines and simple search functions and classify information in meaningful ways
Creating with ICT
Generate ideas plans and processes: use ICT effectively to record ideas, represent thinking and plan solutions
Generate solutions to challenges and learning area tasks: independently or collaboratively create and modify digital solutions, creative outputs or data representation/transformation for articular audiences and purposes
Communicating with ICT
Collaborate share and exchange: select and use appropriate ICT tools safely to share and exchange information and to safely collaborate with others
CRITICAL AND CREATIVE THINKING CAPABILITY
Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
Identify and clarify information and ideas: identify and clarify relevant information and prioritise ideas
Organise and process information: analyse, condense and combine relevant information from multiple sources
Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
Imagine possibilities and connect ideas: combine ideas in a variety of ways and from a range of sources to create new possibilities
PERSONAL AND SOCIAL CAPABILITY
Work independently and show initiative: assess the value of working independently, and taking initiative to do so where appropriate
Become confident resilient and adaptable: devise strategies and formulate plans to assist in the completion of challenging tasks and the maintenance of personal safety
Communicate effectively: identify and explain factors that influence effective communication in a variety of situations
Work collaboratively: contribute to groups and teams, suggesting improvements in methods used for group investigations and projects
Make decisions: identify factors that influence decision making and consider the usefulness of these in making their own decisions
The VR School Study has always been concerned with safe and ethical use of immersive technologies especially with children and young people, and in schools. We were the first to create safety resources and procedures for teachers and students and, in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, we continue to make safety and hygiene the top priority.
Hence, we have developed a safety protocol and set of related resources to address hygiene and safety for VR headsets that use mobile phones – this is the type of equipment we are using for the 360° VR content creation that is the basis of the Athelstone Italian language learning study. The resources were developed for training primary (elementary) school aged children in Years 5/6.
Context always matters when assessing and addressing risk including VR use in classrooms, especially during a pandemic. When undertaking risk assessment and development of protocols and resources to mitigate risk for VR (or any equipment digital or otherwise), each school must address their local conditions, follow expert advice on hygiene and safety, and develop their own risk assessment, protocols and resources.
Here is a summary of the risks identified and the proposed mitigation strategies developed in relation to context:
Covid-19 transmission through student sharing of VR headsets and phones
– Assign each student their own headset, box for headset storage and phone – Label headsets, storage box and phone with the name of the student to allow students and teachers to monitor the use of personally assigned equipment. – Teachers train students in not sharing headsets, storage box or phones and to always return headset to its assigned box. – Reinforce safety and hygiene messages and procedure in class at the beginning of the lesson and with a poster displayed at the front of the classroom and with a laminated version on each desk. – Teachers in-class monitoring that students use their assign headset and pack headset into assigned box. – For the duration of the research no other students or classes use equipment.
Lack of compliance with Education Department Covid-19 advice for schools
– Principal does daily online checks of Department’s Covid-19 advice for schools to ensure compliance and that the project’s risk mitigation strategies do not contravene advice.
Poor VR headset and phone hygiene
– At the beginning and end of each lesson students wash/sanitise their hands. – At the end of each lesson students use disposable sanitiser wipes to clean their assigned headset (except for lenses) and phone at the end of each lesson and return VR headset to its assigned box.
Teacher handling of phone after it’s been sanitised may put them at risk
– Teachers use disposable gloves to collect phones from students and connect these to charging station.
Desk contamination with from VR headset
– At the end of the lesson and after wiping their headsets and phones, students use sanitiser wipes to clean their desk and the laminated safety poster which is on their desk.
Improper disposal of used sanitiser wipes and gloves
– At the end of each lesson students dispose of used disinfectant/alcohol cloths in plastic bag that has no tears or holes in it and this is tied shut by teachers who dispose of it directly into school skip bin. – Teachers dispose of used gloves in plastic bag that has no tears or holes in it and this is tied shut by teachers who dispose of it directly in to school skip bin.
Students experience cybersickness
– Students trained to recognise signs of cybersickness or discomfort and to immediately take headset off and tell teacher. – The training message is reinforced on safety poster displayed in classroom with a laminated version on each desk. – Students buddy-up to check on each other during use of headset. – Limit of 15 minutes per lesson in headset monitored by teacher and student-buddy.
Students move out of seat with VR headset on and injury themselves or others
– Students receive training on staying seated while they have the headset on. – The training message is reinforced on safety poster displayed in classroom with a laminated version on each desk. – Students buddy up to make sure each remains seated and teachers monitor this in class.
Here are the teacher-delivered safety and hygiene training script for students:
Here is the teacher safety and hygiene classroom procedure:
The ‘Be VR Safe’ poster for display in classrooms and on student’s desks is a child-friendly version of the safety and hygiene procedure outlined in the training script.
All these resources can be downloaded from the resources section of this website.
In my recent book, I provide some explanatory frameworks on the pedagogical uses of VR. While much of the public discourse centres around technical differences between types of VR (i.e. the difference between 3 Degree of Freedom [DOF] vs 6 DOF) or whether 360° technology is ‘real’ VR, as an educator I think it is more important to focus on the pedagogical utility of the technology. One way of making pedagogical sense of VR is to conceptualise its different possibilities for learning with explicit connection to the signature pedagogies of disciplines (or school subjects derived from disciplines).
The diagram below (developed for the book) illustrates some key conceptions of VR for learning. VR applications can reflect one or more of these concepts.
When teachers are considering VR they should explore the learning experiences the application offers and how this might fit with the range of instructional strategies commonly used in specific subjects. For example, if you were teaching history you might ask if the software offers a means for transporting students to another place or time because this would fit well with the instructional repertoire usually deployed in the subject area. A core instructional strategy used in a subject is called a ‘signature pedagogy’ (Shulman, 2005). Signature pedagogies are important because they:
implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known…. They define the functions of expertise in a field. (Shulman, 2005, p. 56)
In the case of sparking the imagination through a historical re-creation experience (re-creation being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of history), a time-travel experience would traditionally be facilitated through the instructional use of text, maps, or video. Choosing a time-travel VR experience for history makes good pedagogical sense because it leverages or extends on the signature pedagogy of that particular discipline. Relatedly, this is why VR resonates with the types of place-based pedagogy used in subjects such as geography or in professional training simulations. The technology can be used to take the learner elsewhere and its spatial affordances (properties) fit with the signature pedagogy of geography which is the field trip or professions where situated learning in workplaces (placements) are key (such as clinical health or teacher education).
Let’s look at another example using the diagram. In order to teach science, an educator might want to provide students with the opportunity to conduct experiments that are too complex or dangerous for a school laboratory – experimentation in labs being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of science. The teacher would therefore investigate if there was a total learning environment in the form of a virtual laboratory available so that experiments could be safely simulated.
A performing arts teacher might find that a virtual studio would be a great addition to the actual studio of the drama classroom because it offered a range of tools for her student to design sets and costumes. VR design studios allow for ease of prototyping (click of the controller for creating, erasing and changing elements) at actual scale and let students easily share design ideas for rapid feedback from the teacher and peers (the book has a case study on how a real teacher did this in a rural school). In this case, the virtual environment offers tools to support the signature pedagogy of drama teaching which involve facilitating the creative processes through improvisation and iteration.
Finally, some VR applications enable student content creation – this might be through coding (using game engines such as Unreal and Unity for example) or with more accessible ‘no code create’ drag-and-drop software. In this pedagogical conception of VR, students use the technology as a form of immersive media that can tell a learning story. Students create their own worlds and tell their own stories to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes and to communicate with, and teach, others.
This pedagogical conception of VR as media informs our latest research on using 360° content creation for second language learning at Athelstone primary school. The 360° platform, VRTY, offers ‘no code create’ opportunities for primary school students to create their own ‘surround’ worlds that acts as a foundation to embed other media into (other media includes gaze-activated pop-up text, sound files, photos, videos, gifs and animations). Students are required to demonstrate that they meet learning outcomes, such as oral or written mastery of Italian vocabulary, by creating a 360°world that is enriched with other digital content they have created. Students can link 360° environments together through gaze-activated portals. The many layers of media content creation entail students planning, experimenting, designing, and evaluating the story they want to tell in their virtual worlds. They then share their creations with peers and the teacher for authentic feedback. They are making media-rich narratives to educate others about the Italian language and culture while demonstrating content mastery.
One our key research questions involves understanding how language teachers can leverage their signature pedagogies to take advantage of the learning affordances of 360° media creation in ways that enhance student engagement and learning. Concentrating on the instructional utility of VR in direct relation to the distinctive pedagogies of the subject being taught – its signature pedagogies – will yield theoretically rich and salient insights for teaching and curriculum design. You are invited to follow our adventure. Stay tuned.
Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate on behalf of the Athelstone School VR School Team
Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.
Southgate, E. (2020). Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms. Routledge.
In 2019, VRTY partnered with the Athelstone School and the VR School Study to investigate how primary school students could create 360° environments to enhance language learning, in this case Italian. VRTY was created in 2016 to help make virtual reality more accessible to educators and students. Its founders wanted to improve educational approaches by bringing-to-life 21st Century learning outcomes.
So what is it really? VRTY is a VR and interactive 360° content creation and sharing software platform. It lives in the cloud and its benefit is its ability to help anyone create their own virtual content. There’s no need to code because the platform provides its own easy-to-use tools to let the imagination run free, enact design thinking, problem-solve, prototype and create and share feedback with others.
Being cloud based, there are no specific hardware requirements to use the platform; all you need is a computer with Google or safari browsers and an internet connection. To share a newly created project, it can be shared via a QR code or unique web address (URL). When viewing a project, it can be viewed in 360°mode on any device with a google or safari browser; and to view in VR mode it can be viewed using a mobile and a VR cardboard or mobile headset.
Using VRTY 360° in education has the potential to
Increase student engagement;
Facilitate higher order thinking and collaboration;
Allow students to demonstrate content mastery through the creation of their own media-rich virtual environments;
Develop ICT capability area of the National Curriculum integrated across learning areas; and
Authentically share content that can be used across the education community.
VRTY provides online training on the platform and an in-class teleconference training session (which is pictured above). Founder, Kingston Lee-Young is enjoying the Athelstone School collaboration, offering the following insights:
“As software developers, we had a vision of creating something that would improve the learning environment and benefit both teachers and students. Partnering with the Athelstone School allows us to see our VRTY platform in action in the hands of year 5 students learning Italian. Whilst the involvement of the VR School Study means we are being measured to see if we are truly adding value.”
The photo above shows Kingston and Sarah Lee (VR Producer at VRTY) providing online training to Athelstone School students.
For more information about VRTY or to see some of its shareable content please head to: https://vrty.io
The VR School Study is in a new partnership with Athelstone School, a South Australian primary (elementary) school. The Athelstone School research will investigate how 360° VR content creation can be used for learning Italian. Funded by the South Australian Department of Education’s Innovative Language Program Grants (ILPG) program, Year 5 and 6 students will use the VRTY platform to create and share their own virtual worlds guided by the Australian curriculum. This action research has already undergone a pilot phase that happened in the second half of 2019 and we are now entering into the first of several research cycles in order to explore technical challenges, developmental appropriateness of 360° VR, and the efficacy and innovative potential of 360° VR content creation for learning another language.
The teacher co-researchers on the project are language teachers Angelica Cardone (far left behind) and Jo Romeo (left front on top image), and Principal Gyllian Godfrey (back centre) who is also a qualified language teacher. Gyllian provided this reflection on the project:
“The ILPG has offered the opportunity to test the benefits of VR for students
learning languages at primary level and has also upped-the-ante by making
students the creators of their own content, by developing non-linear language
learning narratives for themselves and their peers.”
In our next blog, the folks from VRTY explain how students can use their platform for content creation and learning. Stay tuned.
Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate who is taking up a lot of room (right front) in the photo above.
This article was first published by the Australian Association for Research in Education (29 June, 2020). I’m sharing it here because it highlights some interesting findings from the book.
Virtual Reality in school education: Australia leads the way with groundbreaking research
By Erica Southgate
In 2016, I attended a meeting and fortuitously sat next to the (now retired) principal of Callaghan College who asked me what type of research I’d like to do in schools. At the time a new high-end, highly immersive type of virtual reality (VR) hardware called the Oculus Rift had been released. This type of VR equipment was costly and needed an expensive computer to run but offered entry into amazing worlds. It provided high fidelity environments to be explored through gestural interaction via controllers that allowed you to use your virtual hands to interact with virtual objects and avatars (either other people or computer characters) and navigate in ways that felt incredibly embodied (I am addicted to flying and jumping off clouds in VR).
I made a gentle pitch that I’d like to work with teachers to embed this technology into classrooms to see how it could be used for learning but that I had no idea what we might find. And so began the VR School Study, a collaboration with Callaghan College and later, Dungog High School, both government high schools in NSW, Australia. It became the first research internationally to embed high-end VR in school classrooms.
VR School Study
The VR School Study is ongoing participatory research that aims to explore the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. We focus on how VR can be used to enhance learning, its relationship to curriculum, and its implications for pedagogy. And we examine all the practical, ethical and safety issues that come with integrating emerging technology in classrooms. At the end 2018, the study reached a major milestone with the completion of two major case studies into the use of the technology in secondary schools.
An ‘arduous’ adventure in emerging technology
IN 2018, on the last day of research at Callaghan College, I interviewed two teachers about what it was like to embed an emerging technology in the classroom. The response was, ‘Arduous comes to mind.’ While we did have a laugh, the comment summed up a range of issues encountered during the research.
Space to accommodate VR and safety concerns
Trying to find an available classroom space large enough to accommodate the play areas needed for this VR, which is best used standing and moving around, proved difficult. On one campus we managed to get a room with a small storeroom off it that squeezed in three sets of VR equipment with play areas while at the other we had a larger former lab-preparation room attached to a classroom. Both VR rooms were beyond the immediate supervisory gaze of the teacher and so required me or a student to act as a safety ‘spotter’ to ensure there were no collisions with walls, furniture or peers. Even though there is a built in ‘Guardian System’ (a pop-up virtual cage mapped to the real environment you should stay within), some students became so immersed that they ignored it and needed intervention. Even now with ‘pass through’ cameras in some VR headsets (these allow the user to see the outside environment when they go beyond the Guardian System) some people become so immersed and are interacting with such speed that they can run into objects. Engineered safety solutions are not always enough to maintain safety.
Network and server issues
Getting the tech to work within the confines of the school internet network proved difficult. Game stores that allow multiplayer environments were blocked and internet work-arounds required. Teachers had to set-up individual student accounts which was time-consuming and often update applications in their own time. Our screen capture video, which showed a first-person view of what the student was seeing and doing in a virtual environment, indicated that the technology failed 15% of the time due to network, server and VR tracking drop-out. One of my favourite moments in student humour and resilience was when I heard one boy say to another as they who were fixing a server issue for the third time, “Aren’t you glad you signed up for this?”.
Content mastery and creativity through collaboration
Students were given the highest quality VR and ‘sandbox’ applications, such as Minecraft VR and Tilt Brush which allowed them to create in virtual environments without needing to code. Combined with clever curriculum design they undertook self-directed formative assessment tasks.
In Year 9 science this involved groups researching and developing a model of a body organ in Minecraft VR. The results were an astounding mix of scientific knowledge melded with creative endeavour developed through group problem-solving and collaboration inside and outside of VR.
One group produced an anatomically correct, labelled eyeball which was toured by via a rollercoaster while another built a skyscraper of a brain sitting atop a spinal cord which you flew up to interact with engineered components representing neurons. While in VR, students narrated from memory the parts and function of the brain. Analysis of the screen capture video using a framework adapted from work by Assistant Professor in Learning and Learning Processes the University of Oulu, Jonna Malmberg, indicated that the majority of students used the creative properties of VR to engage in highly collaborative science learning.
At Dungog High School a senior drama class used single-player 3-D sculpting program Tilt Brush, as an infinite virtual design studio to explore symbolism in set design at real life scale and beyond. Students worked in groups to quickly prototype symbolic elements of their directorial vision with peers and the teacher moving in and out of VR to offer feedback. Mistakes were erased or changes made at the press of a button. The virtual studio of Tilt Brush melded with the drama studio to offer students an opportunity to view their design in 3D from the perspective of an audience member, director, designer or actor. All they needed to do was teleport round the virtual environment to do this.
Let’s leave behind the EdTech evangelism
An admission – I’m not a fan of the type of innovation discourse which permeates university managerial-speak and is associated with EdTech (educational technology) evangelism. This type of talk conjures up images of momentous leaps in ways of doing and knowing with the trope of the lone (male, yes it is a gendered) genius leading the charge with their vision of the future.
Innovation is incorrectly depicted as a development shortcut detached from contexts and the years of work that yield incremental improvements and insights, as Stanford University Director, Christian Seelos, and colleague Johanna Mair, argue. They warn against evaluating innovation only on positive outcomes as this can stifle experimentation required to progress an initiative in difficult or unpredictable environments.
This aligns with critical studies in EdTech where research is on the ‘state-of-the-actual’ rather than the ‘state-of-the-art’, as Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Neil Selwyn reminds us. It entails moving away from trying to ‘prove’ a technology works for learning to scrutinizing what actually takes place especially in contexts that are not the ‘model’ well-resourced schools where technologies are often tested.
Teleporting away for now
As I have argued elsewhere, to get the best ethical and educational outcomes with emerging technologies we must carefully incubate these in schools (and not just resource-rich ones) in collaboration with willing teachers so that we can document incremental ‘innovation’ through ‘state-of-the-actual’ reporting. This can be an arduous project but one full of authentic and valuable insights for those willing to go on a research and pedagogical adventure. It’s this type of evidence, not EdTech evangelism, that we need.
For those who want more. In May 2020, I published findings from the study in Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (Routledge). As co-researchers, teachers from Callaghan College and Dungog High School contributed to their respective chapters in this book. The book offers new pedagogical frameworks for understanding how to best use the properties of VR for deeper learning as well as a ‘state-of-the-actual’ account of the ethical, practical and technical aspects of using VR in low-income school communities.
Out of three years of co-research with teachers comes the first book (of many I hope) from the VR School Study. The book, Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (2020 Routledge) provides a brand new pedagogical framework with scaffolds for educators on how to use the technology for deeper learning. Case studies from Callaghan College and Dungog High School are included with a focus on metacognition, collaboration and creativity.
Recently I participated in the IEEE VR 2020 panel on Ethics and Privacy in Mixed Reality. Due to Covid-19, the organisers of IEEE VR, the premier research conference on XR technologies, moved (in just a few weeks) from a traditional face-to-face format to fully online mode. This included the option of presenting in Mozilla Hubs and so the panel itself was presented in VR. I was invited to speak by Diane Hosfelt, Senior Research Engineer at Mozilla and a leading proponent of privacy in mixed reality technologies. The other panelists were Divine Maloney (Clemson University) whose PhD explores implicit bias in VR and leading public intellectual on XR (extended reality) technologies Kent Bye. Here is a video of the panel discussion:
Just to show how fun it was to present in VR, here is a screenshot of the panel and some of the audience members in action in Hubs VR (it was also live streamed to Twitch).
I hope you enjoy the wide-ranging discussion on ethics and privacy. It is certainly applicable to the increasing ‘datafication’ of education.
Could you tell me a about your professional background?
I’m a director and indie studio owner whose career started with web development in the early 90s. I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my career. I self-funded over a decade’s worth of experimental interactive films by working as a systems architect and troubleshooter. During the dotcom and Web 2.0 years I worked on a large variety of corporate, start-up and indie projects (e.g. BBC, Reuters) through my consultancy thequality.com, culminating in founding Mod Films in London in 2004 with invention award funding from the UK National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA). In 2010 Mish Sparks and I co-founded Mod Productions in Sydney to form a more commercially viable indie studio that today is simply called Mod and focuses on realtime and virtual production.
When did you first get interested in VR and why?
I first became aware of VR in the late 80s when I was in high school. I’d started programming on the Commodore 64 when it came out a few years earlier and I was amazed by how immersive an experience could be conjured up that machine’s ground-breaking (for the time) graphics and audio capabilities. The occasional glimpse of military flight simulators and VR technology labs in the press and on TV only piqued my interest further in creating virtual worlds. My first (super brief) experience of VR was the Dactyl Nightmare arcade game which left me wholly underwhelmed but this interest was rekindled at university where I set up the first web site in NSW as part of a Computer Science Honours project in 1993. When Virtual Reality Modelling Language was released I began my VR development career in earnest although it was many years before VR became accessible outside research labs.
How do you currently use VR?
At Mod we use VR behind the scenes all the time for visualisation and prototyping, even when the final product is not intended for an immersive audience. For example, to collaborate on a 3D design job or to make sense of a large data set. Our main VR activities are around virtual production – using Extended Reality (XR) tools and processes for film & TV. We are in the late stages of making a documentary A Clever Label as a virtual production – I call it a “documentary experience” which explores data storytelling and hosting a documentary in VR. This will initially be released as a regular video with an interactive VR product to follow. This year we’ve adapted to a post-COVID-19 routine of hosting weekday sessions in the Hubs by Mozilla VR platform which allows us to meet our virtual team socially and share presentations with body language. We use VR extensively for recreation – Beat Saber is a wonderful gift during lockdown.
What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?
We’ve only scratched the surface of what a creative immersive experience can be. My practice sits at the intersection of film and game so while I’m drawn to VR as an artistic and production tool – it is only part of our Extended Reality (XR) palette. Interactive experience design is my focus though – not VR. Not all projects end up with a digital immersive component at all and sometimes concepts move between AR, VR, and MR. There’s always exciting developments in how rich the audio-visual experience can be. With the teams we work with, there’s often creative tension between the visual effects (VFX) view of the world and the game design view. With VFX, the focus is typically all about the aesthetic, linear story and visual fidelity, where in game design the creative process is usually tempered by the need to keep as much of the process real-time where some aesthetic compromises have to be made. I find this area very exciting and challenging to work in but ultimately I try to keep an open mind for each project and look for the right medium.
What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?
Start small but there’s never been a better time to invest the time into practical VR making with a wealth of creative collaborative tools available. For makers, game engines like Unity and UE4 provide tonnes of free sample projects for high school students and above to use. Invest in the VR headset you can afford but make sure students learn the difference between 3DOF (three degree of freedom) and 6DOF (six degree of freedom) experiences. Possibly the biggest mistake I’ve seen in immersive media education is focusing on 360 video (and not on 6DOF VR). I’m particularly keen to see more students exploring virtual production for storytelling using VR scouting and virtual camera tools developed for shows like The Lion King (some now available as free Unreal Engine downloads!). These resources are still considered a high-end production tool but over the next decade we will see the democratization of virtual production. Film and games can be highly collaborative mediums and I look forward to seeing more school projects where students learn the valuable skills of creative and technical collaboration in VR.
Could you tell me about your professional background Michelle?
I studied Multimedia in the early 2000s and began to incorporate technology into my arts practice, I did a lot of computer design work for musicians, bands and venues back then. About this time I also started working and playing in the music industry. I ended up managing one of Australia’s iconic community radio stations, 4ZZZ in Brisbane, so I didn’t have much time to spend on my art, but I did manage to keep producing work occasionally! Being connected to an industry like music gave me a great bunch of opportunities but I decided to leave 4ZZZ in 2016 to concentrate on a career creating art and producing content.
When did you first get interested in VR and why?
In 2016 while I was finishing up my management role I saw some really cool stuff being created with augmented and virtual reality. I started to look into what I needed to get a VR set up and also started producing AR artwork, I already had the animation and illustration skills plus the tech knowledge so it all just kind of fell into place! The biggest barrier for VR is the expense of the equipment however things are getting cheaper with stand-alone headsets like the Quest available, at the time I had to invest in a PC (I was strictly a mac user for a long time!) and a HTC Vive. Some of the artists I saw producing VR artwork include Liz Edwards, a very cool 3D artist, which got me into a VR art app called Tilt Brush, which I’ve used ever since in my workflow, from music videos to large scale installation work.
How do you currently use VR?
I mainly work with some of the VR art apps/programs like Google’s Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch and some of the animation programs like Tvori. I paint and create environments and worlds in VR that are the base for music videos, installation work and more. Just like a 3D modelling program, many of the VR apps allow you to export 3D creations that can be used in other apps, like Unity, or traditional film editing software like Premiere Pro.
I also teach workshops in using VR and AR in arts practice, so showing ways that you can integrate illustration and animation with mobile apps and teaching people about the art apps I’ve mentioned.
What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?
For me I love it, it really cuts down on the amount of time I spend hand illustrating or animating. The same with 3D modelling, it would take me possibly 3 times the amount of time to create something in Cinema4D that I can model quickly in VR as it’s more attune to actual sculpting/painting.
I also feel that VR can create more of an impactful experience, when you are in a headset it’s easy to ignore everything else going on and just concentrate on the narrative or user experience, no social media distractions!
What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?
Allow a bit of time for all students to have a play in VR, even if you only have one or two headsets! If you are showing students how to use some of the art programs like Tilt Brush, you need to let them have a little time to get comfortable and creative. But also keep in mind taking breaks if you’re in the headset for more than 30 minutes at a time. I also would recommend giving some direction so that students experimenting with VR art have something to focus on rather than just aimlessly painting swirls, for example; get them to paint a favourite animal or cartoon.
What is unique about creating in VR instead of some other medium?
It’s mainly the speed of which I can get an idea out plus the fact it’s in a three dimensional space, it’s just so much quicker for me to produce a visual story. It’s also a way that I can communicate a theme or an idea that links to a social issue that I can address with my installation work, as it allows for more intimacy and less distraction. Being immersed in a 3D environment by yourself in the headset provides a great opportunity to just focus.