We Went on the VR Field Trip of Tomorrow. Here’s What We Saw
One cold day this spring, I held a Google Cardboard headset to my face and joined a few dozen New York fourth-graders on a virtual field trip. We visited Independence Square, saw the Liberty Bell, and stopped by the house where George Washington and John Adams lived before presidents lived in the White House, though we went there, too.
If you could stand in the middle of Google Street View, but at a historical site instead of in the middle of the road, it might feel like this. Google’s lo-fi VR headset let the kids look up, down, and all around, giving many of them their first look at Philadelphia. If the teacher wanted to direct their attention to a specific landmark, she’d tap her tablet and make an arrow appear above it. That same tablet let her know what the children were looking at, and tailor the lesson if they fixated on something.
This is the VR-enabled future of classroom learning, as imagined by Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program. The premise is simple: “What if we came up with an app that could take students to places where school buses can’t go?” says Jen Holland, who leads Google Apps for Education. The Expeditions Pioneer Program simulates visiting Philadelphia. Or the Great Barrier Reef. Or, possibly, anywhere Google has mapped, which is pretty much everywhere.
Google launched Expeditions in September, and since then, Holland’s team has created more than 200 expeditions and shown them to one million students in 11 countries. Those all happened through Google-led visits; today, now that Google has released the Expeditions app, the program is free to download for anyone with an Android device. All you need is a Cardboard headset, which you can buy from the Google Store.
Unlike the Google Cardboard headsets that arrived with the Sunday Times a few months ago, the headsets for students in the Pioneer program have line drawings of fish, planets, and famous landmarks—cartoon reminders that these headsets belong here, among the gold stars and colored paper signs hanging on the wall. Holland and her team popped Android phones into them, then handed them out. The teacher, whom I can’t name because of city Department of Education rules, started her lesson.
“So, we just finished studying the American Revolution …” She pauses to snap the children, clearly more interested in the headsets, back to attention. “… So we are going to take a look today at historic Philadelphia. The images you see are from today, but they’re all places they used way back then.” She is reading from a tablet that lets her control the headsets. “You ready?” she asks, turning them on.
“Look at that—”
The kids are giddy—more so, I can’t help but think, than they would be standing in Independence Square. What’s more, these kids have taken Expeditions trips before. This isn’t new for them, but the magic is still there.
Immersive and Social
Expeditions overcomes the great drawback of VR: It’s typically experienced in isolation. This is partly due to the low-fidelity build of Cardboard, which does little more than fold and Velcro around a smartphone. There are light leaks, and no hands-free head bands. It’s not high-tech enough for real escapism.
The Google Expeditions interface is also built around a teacher’s need to communicate with her class, making it inherently social. Teachers run the program with a tablet, which ensures students see the same thing (the system uses a near-field peer to peer network, not Wi-Fi.) And like real field trips, Expeditions are made in groups.
To create excursions, Holland’s team draws on the massive database of 360-degree imagery that Google has collected through Street View. It also has used Jump, Google’s 16-GoPro camera rig, to create trips through the Entrance Hall and Green Room at the White House. And they’ve created virtual tours of 50-odd colleges for high school students who can’t visit them in person.
Holland calls the team “very scrappy.” In true Google fashion, the team makes stuff quickly, and gives it to users as soon as possible. Once the team has the images, it can create an editorial outline in 24 hours. Not long ago, a pair of New York fifth-graders asked for an Expedition about recycling, so they might get classmates to stop dumping things in the trash. Holland’s team made five in one week, shooting them at the Lower East Side Ecology Center and local recycling sites. “We were on the tipping floor”—where trucks dump their bounty—“in a hard hat and hazmat gear,” Holland says. “Expeditions allows this unique perspective into these places. You might be able to take kids into the recycling center, but you’d only view it from the viewing deck.”
For now, Expeditions uses still photography. That reduces the wow-factor, but makes the file sizes manageable for Google, which deliberately runs Expeditions offline to ensure schools with spotty, or no, Internet access can participate. Someday, Holland hopes, the trips will start to move. In the meantime, the relatively low-tech nature of the experience produces some charming effects. One girl in the class I attended was shocked, then delighted, when she realized the shadow behind her—probably cast by the filmmaker—wasn’t hers.
Looking ahead, the level of immersion will factor heavily into how effective VR is as an educational tool. Researchers have touted the educational potential of VR for decades. A 1994 paper from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington says an immersive experience could improve retention of abstract concepts. “When you are able to put a person in a place, they will remember it,” says Dr. Tom Furness, a VR pioneer and founding director of the Lab. “The spatial memory is better than the iconic memory.” The benefit increases as the technology advances, he says, because a broader field of vision increases immersion. When Furness started exploring VR in education, devices provided a 60 to 80 degree range of vision. Today’s devices, including Cardboard, get up to 110 degrees in range.
So far, there are no formal studies that explain how Expedition shapes learning and retention. Product manager Ben Schrom says you can argue about pedagogy, but there is no doubt getting children engaged and actively listening creates “a powerful learning moment.” Google’s decision to make the Expeditions app free to download means those moments will become more available now than ever.
Back in the classroom, Holland asks the kids about the experience. “We did a visual thing, and went to the White House and other things having to do with liberty,” one girl offers. Holland then asks them to explain how it works. The students falter—gyroscopes and accelerometers are hard to explain. Virtual reality, for this generation, less so. “Virtual reality is when you’re not actually in a place but you’re looking at a fake, at a real, place,” says one boy. “You can’t actually go into that place but you can look around it.”
And then it’s time for one more trip. We raise the headsets to our faces and find ourselves under the sea. I see sharks and schools of fish, and hear a room full of euphoric, screaming fourth-graders, who will soon head off to second period.