Teachers reflect on 360° VR for language learning

This post reports on Athelstone School teachers’ views on using VRTY, a 360° content creation platform, for learning Italian with primary (elementary) school students. To catch-up on the research go here and here.

Language teachers Jo Romeo and Angelica Cardone provided extensive reflections in video and written form throughout the study. They noted that most students were engaged in the learning task of creating their virtual tour of Italy and incorporate the mandated Italian directional language and greetings. Teachers were particularly pleased to see less technologically confident students gain skills by collaborating with their peers either in pairs to create one virtual world or through peer-to-peer interaction more generally.

Teacher written reflections suggested that throughout the unit of work students were developing the Deeper Learning capacities of effective communication and problem solving through self-directed learning and an academic mindset featuring persistence when confronted with a range of difficulties:

“(The project) has enabled aspects of learning as they (students) have designed and created their own (virtual) worlds without too much teacher input. They have explored the platform on their own and used it to showcase their language and IT skills. Students did their own research on well-known landmarks as well as using their prior knowledge to include in their VR worlds. This has enabled them to learn factual historical information about different Italian landmarks and has also improved their vocabulary on directional language.… Students enjoyed recording their voices for the sound markers (that were embedded in the 360° scenes) and some students also researched how to pronounce particular words. They became independent workers as most of the time they problem solved on their own trying different strategies to see if they worked or didn’t. This displayed determination and commitment to successfully complete their (virtual worlds).”

Throughout the research, teachers learnt about the potential of immersive storytelling for language learning and students learnt about this too, guided by a mix of instructional strategies and creative processes. Instructional strategies included explicit teaching, scaffolding of student independent research and student production of different types of interactive media in Italian and English to be embedded in the scenes of their virtual Italian tour. After students had created several interconnected 360° scenes, teachers encouraged them to make audio files of themselves (sometimes with peers) orally using the directional language central to the curriculum. These voice recordings were then embedded in appropriate places in 360° scenes along with other media students had sourced or created such as photo and text information pop-ups providing historical or cultural facts related to the scene.

Students exhibited joy when experiencing their 360° creations through a VR headset, as the teachers explain:

“Most students reacted (to the immersive experience) with expressions such as ‘This is amazing’, ‘This is so cool!’. They were actually able to experience firsthand by being engaged in their virtual world. … (T)hey were able to interact more with the world they created using the headsets because for them it felt like they were in Italy and experiencing the tour around Italy rather than just seeing it on the screen.”

“The students were excited and eager to view their worlds in VR using the headsets. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and wonder at being able to view what they had created on a screen using the VRTY platform into what felt like ‘real life’.”

Longitudinal, deep teacher reflection is a key source of data for the VR School Study. Teacher reflections over time provide important insights in to growth in teacher professional learning, student learning and the success of different pedagogical strategies and curriculum planning approaches when using VR real classrooms.

Cover picture: Our last real-life team selfie before the Covid pandemic hit – Front: A/Prof Erica Southgate; Rear (Left to Right): Athelstone School language teachers Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo, and Principal (and language teacher) Gyllian Godfrey. The study was funded through the South Australian Department for Education Innovative Language Program Grant.

Student 360° content creation for learner agency

How do children go about planning the content and experiences of virtual environments that they are creating to demonstrate learning mastery? How do they think about creating virtual environments for their peers to learn in? What are the special learning outcomes related to this? Not much is known about these areas. 

The VR School Study is interested in students as virtual environment content creators. As part of the research, we collected data on the approaches students take when creating their own virtual worlds to demonstrate mastery of learning. This blog reports on interesting findings from the Athelstone School Innovative Languages project where primary (elementary) aged children are building their own 360° virtual tours to demonstrate mastery of the Italian language.

The students are using VRTY, a platform that allows them to plan and create their virtual worlds without needed to code. The platform provides easy-to-use tools with built in tutorials and a fun guide so that students can independently learn to use the platform after a couple of formal training sessions. Previous blog posts describe the VRTY platform and how it is leveraged through the teacher’s curriculum design. The first step, after training, is for students to research and plan their virtual tour. The planning involves storyboarding through VRTY. Students need to:

  1. Locate and choose the 360° photo scenes of Italy that best fit a tour narrative.
  2. Locate cultural and historical images that could be embedded in each scene.
  3. Create their own content to embed in the scene such as text and sound file that draw on the vocabulary mandated and reflect their research on cultural and historical information about Italy.
  4. Design a narrative through storyboarding in VRTY that reflects the story they want to tell and consider whether the tour experience should be linear or non-linear (the image below is of one student’s storyboard).
  5. Create each 360° scene and embed their content into it in an engaging way and place teleporter hotspots in the scenes so those experiencing the tour can move between scenes.  

Fourteen students from a mixed ability class chose to be part of the project with 11 virtual worlds in total created – some students chose to work in pairs. Equal numbers of boys and girls participated. On average student virtual worlds comprised six 360° scenes. Overall, students created 187 pieces of content to embed in scenes in their virtual worlds, including 50 sound files and 137 information markers. The cover image to this blog post is a screen shot from the student tour ‘Journey around Rome’ which shows student created information and sound markers embedded into the scene.

Interestingly, 7 of the 11 worlds were structured according to a non-linear narrative. Non-linear narratives allowed those experiencing the tour to move back and forth between all or most 360° scenes. Students who developed a non-linear narrative storyboard explained that this allowed have the freedom to go back and check out aspects of a scene they might have missed or enjoyed. The image below is of a non-linear narrative storyboard developed in VRTY. The virtual tour was created by a female student who called it ‘Journey around Rome’ and it allowed the traveler to move between a number of historic sites with all sorts of images, text and sound files in English and Italian embedded into them which used the mandated vocabulary and other Italian. Best still the traveler could return to a hotel room and decide which day trip they might take next or they could go back and visit somewhere they had already been.

The storyboard in VRTY for ‘Tour Around Rome’ illustrates the non-linear narrative created by the students with arrow indicating the direction of travel that was possible between 360° scenes.

This sophisticated non-linear narrative approach to constructing a user experience was premised on creating a sense of agency for those experiencing the tour (or other learners). In choosing non-linear narratives some children were tapping into the strength of developing learner agency when designing their virtual worlds. Non-linear narratives were not essential for developing agency but, in many cases, were important to this.

The significance of developing agency in learning cannot be underestimated, as Williams (2017) explains:

“Students with agency develop a self-perception that is based on their abilities as independent thinkers. Our task as educators is not to tell them what to think but to help reveal their thinking by reflecting back to them what we are observing and noticing and naming their acts of problem solving. This feedback builds a metacognitive awareness that reinforces their identities as capable thinkers who are able to construct their own understandings. This mode of learning shifts the locus of power from the teacher to the student, thus setting up students as the experts in their own learning.” (p. 11).

The Athelstone School VR project illustrates how many students themselves understand the significance of agency in creating engaging and efficacious 360° learning environments.

Reference

Williams, P. (2017). Student Agency for Powerful Learning. Knowledge Quest45(4), 8-15.

‘Persi in Citta’ unit of work for the Athelstone School VR project

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 6 (11-12 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.

Lesson 1

  • 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.

Lesson 2

  • 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.

Lesson 3

  • 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?

Lesson 4

  • Use directional language learnt in lessons and put them in their scenes.
  • Portal markers will need to transport the visitors to the location.

Lesson 5

  • 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.

Australian Curriculum Achievement Standards

Communication

  • 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)

Understanding

  • 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)

Success criteria

 YesDeveloping
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:

ICT CAPABILITY

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

Self-management

  • 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

Social management

  • 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

Conceptions of VR + signature pedagogies = learning fit

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

References

Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus134(3), 52-59.

Southgate, E. (2020). Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms. Routledge.

New study on 360° VR for primary school language learning

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.

Some cool stuff from the VR Book

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.

Brain from up high

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.

Inside the brain

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.

Erica Southgate (PhD) is Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is lead author of the recent Australian Government commissioned report, Artificial intelligence and emerging technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in schools research report, and a maker of computer games for literacy learning. Erica is always looking for brave teachers to collaborate with on research and can be contacted at Erica.southgate@newcastle.edu.au. Erica is on Twitter@EricaSouthgate

This article was originally published on EduResearch Matters. Read the original article.AARE

NEW book from the VR School Study

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.

Blog SS

Panel talk on VR ethics

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.

Until next time – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Immerse + Imagine with Michela Ledwidge

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.

SS

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.

Immerse + Imagine with Michelle Brown

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.

Check out Michelle’s VR art and more on her website https://www.thebadlament.com/

MB

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