Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)
- By David W. Dodd
- March 1st, 2017
Reality has been in the
process of being enhanced since
humankind first began telling stories
and painting pictures. Created or enhanced
realities are a fundamental part of what makes
us human and what constitutes our culture. We
don’t think about stories, art, music and other
creations as being enhanced or virtual realities,
but they are. Add tens of thousands of years coupled with enormous
advances in technology, and suddenly virtual reality (VR) seems now
to have finally been discovered. Actually, it isn’t a recent development,
but it has been infused with substantial technological power
and is on the verge of commercial viability and mass adoption.
It Began With a Hacker
This recent phase of virtual reality ties largely to 2010 when
American teenager Palmer Luckey hacked and crafted his way to a
virtual reality prototype headset that would come to be called the
Oculus Rift. In a classic tale that combines the power of ideas and
the power of capital, Luckey the college dropout performed this
feat in his parents’ garage in California with various pieces and
parts. After launching a $250,000 crowdfunding campaign to support
his creation and followed by $2.4 million in additional capital
infusion, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was so impressed by
the Oculus Rift that he acquired it and the organization behind it
for $2 billion. Further catalyzed by significant publicity and the
envy of other large technology companies, the current age of VR
had begun. Companies including Sony, Samsung, HTC, Google
and, more recently, Microsoft, as well as a host of emerging startups,
have made very large investments in VR development.
The basic elements of a virtual reality experience today include
a visor, computer and software.
VR works by convincing your brain that the computer-created world
you see is real. The most capable systems provide a virtual experience
that includes 360-degree visual and full motion imagery that results
from the motions of the user, the system or both. You aren’t merely sitting
in a theater seat watching Jurassic Park on a two-dimensional screen. You
are enjoying a nature walk down a beautiful, dimly lit trail in a wooded
Jurassic landscape. You can turn and see around you, look closely at the
plants and insects and interact visually with your surroundings.
Suddenly a realistic, three-dimensional, nine-ton Tyrannosaurus
leaps directly at you, teeth snapping. You react in terror, because
your brain has already notified every part of your being that this
is very, very real and that you are indeed about to become prey.
Graphic, admittedly. But this is the power of VR. Your eyes convince
your brain that this is your reality. To this foundation, a number of
other components are often added that could include game controllers,
stationary bikes, treadmills and other possibilities that promote
your mobility and that also add sensory stimuli to your experience.
Imagine the overpowering experience created by adding physical
stimuli such as sound, feel, smell, taste and other sensations.
Now you feel the leaves of the Jurassic forest brush your arms and
legs as you walk past them. Your body feels the cool humidity of
the approaching dusk. The air smells acrid from the decomposing
plants. The sensations are so real that you become queasy and then
nauseous, because you are suffering a real condition called cybersickness.
Now when you see the T. Rex snap viciously at you, his hot
breath, the stench of his last meal and a spray of saliva across your
face all combine to reinforce through physiological means everything
that your eyes alone had previously been telling your brain.
One last leap of the imagination — this time in a less repulsive and
more purposeful way. Imagine the power of VR technology applied to
education. The ability to take students who study biology into the inner
workings of a cell. To take students who study aerospace engineering
to a Mars colony to design a new rover. To allow students to experience
the inner workings of the United Nations. To give surgeons the ability
to teach advanced techniques to doctors in developing countries. To
put bioengineering students who design new prosthetics for paralyzed
children into those units to experience them for themselves.
A number of factors have converged such that we are beginning
to see the possibilities that virtual reality can bring to many human
endeavors. VR will be used to enhance sports and entertainment,
travel and leisure, social media systems and many others. VR has
enormous power to not only enhance, but also help transform the
learning experience. If we are wise, this will be one more quantum
leap away from the lecture and toward even greater active and experiential
learning enabled by virtual reality. As we have long known,
this is the deepest and most effective learning.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.
David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.