by Robin A. Smith
On the last day of class, just a few yards from students playing Twister and donning sumo suits, about two dozen people try on futuristic goggles in a windowless conference room.
Behind the clunky headgear, they are immersed in their own virtual worlds.
One woman peers inside a viewer and finds herself underwater, taking a virtual scuba tour.
The sound of breathing fills her headphones and bubbles float past her field of view.
When she looks left or right the image on the screen moves too, thanks to a tiny device called an accelerometer chip — the same gadget built into most smartphones that automatically changes the screen layout from landscape to portrait as the phone moves or tilts.
She turns her head to “swim” past corals and schools of fish. Suddenly a shark lunges at her and bares its razor teeth. “Whoa!” she yelps, taking a half-step back into a table.
A few feet away, virtual reality enthusiast Elliott Miller from Raleigh straps on something that looks like a pair of ski goggles and takes a hyperrealistic roller coaster ride.
He swivels in his office chair for a 100-degree view of the other passengers and the coaster’s corkscrews, twists and turns as he zips along at more than 60 miles per hour, in HD resolution.
“It feels pretty real. Especially when you’re going up a big drop,” Miller said.
Duke senior Nicole Gagnon declines a ride. “I get motion sick,” she said.
Virtual reality headsets like these aren’t in use in Duke classrooms — at least not yet.
Since its beginnings in the mid-1980s, the technology has mostly been developed for the gaming industry.
“[But] with virtual reality becoming more widespread, it won’t be long before it makes it to the classroom,” said Seth Anderson from Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology.
Duke chemistry professor Amanda Hargrove and postdoc Gary Kapral have been testing out ways to use the devices in their chemistry courses.
Thanks to funding from the Duke Digital Initiative, they designed a program that shrinks students down to the size of a molecule and lets them explore proteins and nucleic acids in 3-D.
“We call this demo the ‘Molecular Jungle Gym,’” Kapral said. “You can actually go inside, say, a strand of RNA, and stand in the middle and look around.”
The pilot version uses a standard Xbox-style controller to help students understand how proteins and nucleic acids interact with each other and with other kinds of molecules — key concepts for things like drug design.
Kapral has found that students who use virtual reality show better understanding and retention than students who view the same molecules on a standard computer screen.
“The Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) facility has been doing this for a long time, but you have to physically go there,” said Elizabeth Evans of the Duke Digital Initiative. “What makes virtual reality headsets like these different is they make virtual reality not only portable but also affordable.”
Of course, “affordable” is relative. The devices Kapral and Hargrove are using cost more than $300 per headset. But for less than 20 dollars, anyone can turn a smartphone into a virtual reality headset using a simple kit from makers like Google Cardboard, which designs viewers made of folded cardboard.
Critics of virtual reality technology say it’s just another form of escapism, after TV, the Internet and smartphones.
But educational technology advocates see it as a way to help students see and hear and interact with things that would be impossible otherwise, or only available to a lucky few: to travel back in time and take virtual field trips to historic battlefields as cannon fire fills the air, to visit archeological sites and examine one-of-a-kind cultural artifacts from different angles, or experience different climate change scenarios predicted for the future.
“It’s hard to imagine what one inch versus one foot of sea level rise means unless you stand on a beach and experience it,” Evans said. “Virtual reality could let us give students experiences that are too expensive, too dangerous, or too rare to give them in real life.”
Kapral agrees: “One day students could even do chemistry experiments without worrying about blowing things up.”
Join the mailing list for virtual reality at Duke: https://lists.duke.edu/sympa/subscribe/vr2learn
In a free mobile app called SeaWorld VR, the screen displays two images side by side that the viewer’s brain turns into a 3-D image: