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Virtual reality in the biology classroom

In February 2017, Dawn Gleeson, Director of First Year Studies in Biology, approached Learning Environments to facilitate the delivery of The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell to over 2500 first-year students.

Learning Environments were able to provide training and technical assistance throughout the entire process from purchasing and setup, to training and troubleshooting.

Choosing a system

After evaluating the factors, the Oculus Rift was chosen for the following reasons:

  • Comfortable and easily adjustable head strap with integrated headphones
  • 6-DoF volumetric tracking (to help reduce any potential effects of nausea)
  • Could be used within a limited physical space
  • Touch controllers for hand interaction
  • Longer hardware cycle update to reduce obsolescence

Future integrations could also use the HTC Vive with the upcoming release of a wireless video link, improved headstrap and integrated headphones.

Troubleshooting

Although the Gear VR wasn’t initially considered, it ended up being substituted for the first few weeks due to issues with the Oculus Rift laptops that resulted in them being sent back to the manufacturer (the problem was resolved with a downgrade of the Nvidia driver).

A Biology student views VR during class. In the background is a display of plant cells under a microscope used to view plant cells

A Biology student views VR during class. In the background is a display of plant cells under a microscope used to view plant cells. Photo by Ben Loveridge.

The Gear VR proved to be a useful temporary replacement but had a number of issues:

  • On warm days the S6 phone suffered from overheating and had to be cooled down in a freezer every 10 minutes.
  • It required charging after each session.
  • The lack of external positional tracking meant the user needed to stay seated to reduce any nausea effects from translational movement.
  • There was no user interaction possible except for looking around
  • The tutor could not see at what stage the student was up to so couldn’t provide any extra commentary if required
photo 1

A Samsung S6 sits in a freezer to cool down. Photo by Ben Loveridge.

Physical considerations

Initially the Gear VR demos occurred on a spare workbench in the corner of the class and students were encouraged to take turns on the devices when they became available. However since students were more focussed on finishing their practical assessment, most would line up in the last 30 minutes of the class meaning that only 10 to 20 students (out of a possible 100) in each two-hour class would get a turn.

Biology students using the Gear VR during class

Biology students using the Gear VR during class. Photo by Ben Loveridge.

Once the Oculus Rift laptop systems became available a few weeks into the class, the demonstrations were moved into a separate room to enable a safer space for the systems to be setup and to free up the bench for more students. The instant benefit of using the Rift over the Gear VR in this situation was that the tutor could see at what stage the students were up to in the experience without needing to interrupt them during the session.

I don’t want to read a text book again. I just want to learn everything through VR! First-Year Biology student after completing ‘The Body VR’ experience

Biology students using the Oculus Rift during class

Biology students using the Oculus Rift during class. Photo by Ben Loveridge.

Support considerations

A biology tutor was hired by the department to guide students through the experience and they were given VR training by Learning Environments. The role of the tutor was to assist the students put on the headset correctly, start the application at the correct position and then wipe down the device afterwards ready for the next user. Waterproof VR Covers were used for easy cleaning and the headset was wiped down with non-alcoholic wipes after each use. At the conclusion of the demo they also asked the students for their thoughts and recorded their response for evaluation purposes.

Conclusion

Each session was able to accomodate between 20-40 students through the experience but would generally be dependent on how busy the students were during the class. It is estimated that by the end of semester just over 1000 students will have viewed the experience, less than half the total enrolment. Increasing this number would require additional systems to be purchased, a larger setup space and potentially more VR support staff to be hired.

Feedback from staff and students to the VR experience was positive:

  • 87% found the use of VR helped them understand the structure and the organelles of the cell
  • 95% thought that using this technology would be useful in improving their understanding of biological concepts
  • 97% responded that they would attend a 10 minute session outside of the practical class which illustrated important concepts if the VR experience could not be fitted into a practical class

From a support perspective once the demo process was worked out, it became easier for the tutor to get as students through as the semester went on.

Although the Gear VR is a cheaper option ($1300) compared an Oculus Rift laptop setup ($4000), having larger quantities of Gear VR’s would have been cumbersome for the tutor to manage more than than two devices and students at once. Also the yearly upgrade cycle of the Gear VR would mean the equipment would be out of date faster than desktop VR systems.

Although purchasing a large quantity of Gear VR sets devices could have allowed more students to experience the demo earlier in the semester, the downsides to that approach include finding extra physical space to run the demos, managing multiple students at once and extra support time required to maintain software updates. Furthermore, since the update cycle of mobile VR devices is much faster than for desktop systems, once a new model is released, the previous generation becomes obsolete earlier. Investing in high quality hardware ensures that the systems do not go out of date as early and helps provide an experience that most students would not be able to try at home.

Future planning

Virtual reality (VR) provides educators with a new medium to engage and immerse students in learning concepts often delivered through textbooks or two dimensional screens. It’s an excellent tool for education as it can change the abstract into the tangible, support “doing” rather than just observing and can substitute methods that are desirable but practically infeasible1.

In an ideal world, all students would own a low-cost VR-ready smartphone or desktop system and would be able to interact with VR content in their own time. Perhaps one day, VR platforms could even be used as an assessment tool. However, that reality may still be at least five years away so in the meantime educators need to consider the best method of integrating VR in the classroom. Finding the correct demo location and time in the class without disrupting the allotted tasks is definitely an important consideration.

Creating content from scratch rather than relying on external third-party providers would be a worthy goal for the University but much like the early days of the web it will take some time to develop these skills in-house. As content creation tools become more readily available and easy to use, building appropriate and unique material should also become more of a reality.

Shopping list (prices in AUD)

  • Oculus Rift headset and Touch controllers – $1000
  • MSI GT72VR laptop – $3000
  • VR covers – $150
  • Wet wipes – $10

Total = $4160

If you are interested in incorporating VR into your classroom situation or need advice on hardware purchases, contact the Learning Environments support centre.

Footnotes

1. Enhancing our lives with Immersive Virtual reality by Mel Slater and Maria V. Sanchez-Vives

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