Virtual Worlds vs Virtual Reality: a Comparison of Immersive Experiences

After a decade in virtual worlds and a few years of exploring virtual reality (VR), I believe I understand the difference and predict that both have purpose and potential for learning. In my view, a virtual world is a persistent “land” space and virtual reality is a disposable “bubble” experience.

Virtual Worlds are persistent spaces of land

Virtual worlds can be visited again and again. One can explore spaces, build them and watch communities grow. An example is the Community Virtual Library which has recently undergone a huge move to a new space near educational writing/publishing communities.

The Community Virtual Library (CVL) houses a main library building, a networking hub, a pier on the beach for events, a library pub, four exhibit/gallery/display areas, an art study group space, book discussion space, virtual poetry garden, book orchard, and other immersive experience locations. Library Land (on Cookie Island in Second Life) can be visited over and over just like a physical place. CVL is a real library.

Virtual Reality is an experience bubble

An example of a VR experience is my recent “walking out on a beam over the city”! It felt so real. Looking down below, my knees were shaking and then a helicopter came by right at eye level.

Other “bubble’ experiences (meaning one time experiences- then ‘pop’! it is gone) include: climbing an ancient rock structure, stabbing zombies, shooting arrows at medieval warriors, and working inside a rocket ship to troubleshoot the engine. While most developers focus on entertainment, there is obviously potential for education in virtual reality.

Teachers should use with caution as studies have not fully examined the impact on the human brain. VR can sometimes feel as real as the physical world, making it nearly impossible for young children to distinguish between virtual and physical world experiences. Reality is changing and anyone working in virtual worlds understands that they are “real” places.

One of my favorite VR experiences so far is Google Tilt Brush. It is like stepping inside an empty canvas of space to create digital art! Similar to programs like Paint, Photoshop or other applications, you choose colors, brushes, textures and tools to create and sculpt in 3D. What is amazing is that you can save your 3D work and share it with others allowing them to step inside. The ability to share work with others is unique to this VR experience and similar to the collaborative work I have experienced in virtual worlds. Most VR experiences are limited to a short period of time with little opportunities for user-generated content as developers create the space in programs like Unity or Unreal Engine.

Social VR is on the horizon with Facebook opening a VR platform on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. This social interaction will look entirely different than the learning communities already available in virtual worlds. Most of the demonstrations I have tried focus on entertainment because developers find it too expensive and time-consuming to research educational needs for high quality accurate subject-specific content. In virtual worlds, educators and experts themselves can build and share accurate content for learning.

Augmented reality may be more useful for consumers than virtual reality as it layers information into the physical world rather than separating us from it. Augmenting of a digital space is certainly possible in virtual worlds as content is layered and embedded.

As we enter 2018, nobody can predict how virtual reality and virtual worlds will evolve. Currently, they are very separate ‘animals’ and I find the potential for collaborative (constructive) learning in virtual worlds to hold much more potential than VR. This fall, I worked with the Community Virtual Library to create a research center for the Dickens Project which centered on A Christmas Carol and the Victorian Era. Twelve research presentations were shared within a simulated “London” with live tours, events, and readings throughout the month of December. A virtual library connects the traditions of high quality literature throughout the past with technology tools available today while connecting learners across the globe in real-time. I find that more amazing than a disposable bubble.

Retiring into Virtual Reality

What does a librarian do after working for 25 years in a beautiful school library?  One cannot simply walk away from information literacy.  The future of mankind depends upon it!

For nearly a decade, this blog has focused on the intersection of information literacy and global digital participatory culture (where students now live).  Futurists, such as Thomas Frey, often make fascinating predictions; however, nobody really knows what libraries and digital culture will look like in ten years.  One prediction is the rise in virtual reality tools like Oculus Rift, which I was able to experience this week thanks to my colleague from the University of Washington, Suzette Lewis and her talented computer programmer son, Matthew.

 

Valibrarian tries Oculus Rift

Suzette and Matthew are working on a research project in Oculus Rift to explore how 3D immersion with a headset and body motions differs from “flat computer screen” 3D worlds.  I was invited, along with another graduate from the University of Washington’s Certificate in Virtual Worlds, to preview the project and found it simply amazing, although I was surprised the motion of movement in Oculus Rift made me dizzy!  What!? I love roller coasters but his was totally different.  Since I was motivated to master the movements, I was moving my arms wildly and found myself falling off a high platform into water.  The graphics (created by Matthew in Unity) were amazingly realistic.

Moving in Oculus Rift

What does virtual reality have to do with information literacy and education? Consider how technology has impacted learning in the past five years.  My school library was transformed from a primarily print-based environment to a digital world of iPads and apps in just two years.  This rapid change is likely to continue in all areas of life- particularly social life as mobile devices continue to promise “connectivity” with our friends and family.  Facebook has teamed up with Oculus Rift to make shared virtual events (concerts, a child’s birthday party, or anything one can imagine) possible.  The educational potential might allow students to experience history, math, literature, art, or any other area of academics through virtual reality.

Having worked in virtual worlds for over 8 years, this concept is certainly not new to me.  In fact, immersive learning experiences (such as the Anne Frank MOOC or the Summer in Berlin Simulation) are already possible in virtual worlds without a headset.  The difference is the use of body movements rather than a keyboard and mouse.  The potential for experiences of a variety of purposes is obvious; however, one might consider the actual concept of “reality”. What actually is reality?  Is reality what is happening around us in the concrete world or what is happening within the mind?

Just as in the physical world, we have choices to make every day.  Where do we want to spend our time and place our attention?  What books do we want to read and what other media formats do we pursue?  VR will bring more possibilities which will exemplify the personal responsibility required of digital citizens. Yes, it comes down to information literacy once again.

 

Ready Player One: a Sci-Fi Virtual World Futuristic Novel

Cline, E. (2011). Ready player one. New York: Crown Publishers.

readyplayerone

What a romp! With tons of references to 80s culture and the historical background of videogames, Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE captures the feeling of virtual reality. Anyone who has spent time in virtual worlds as an avatar will easily envision Parzival (Wade Watts) and cheer him on his quest for Halliday’s egg through virtual and physical peril. The novel will soon be seen on the big screen, with the screenwriter for the Xmen at the helm.

Young adult readers will appreciate the theme of collaborative teamwork as Parzival’s friends outwit the corporate geeks called “the Sixers”. Some of the futuristic innovations, such as the flicksync (where a player is inside a simulation of a movie) or the simulation of specific towns and buildings may be not that far away with virtual reality applications like Oculus Rift.

Yet these same tech savvy young people may get a warning about the openness of digital life and digital footprints. When Parzival enters a high level of the game, his friends begin giving him tips for his maneuvers. He interrupts with, “How could you possibly know all this?”
“Because we can see them,” Shoto said. “Everyone logged into the OASIS right now can see them. They can see you, too.” Cline, 2011 p354

Live videofeed and live simultaneous virtual experiences are already a part of our lives. The setting for READY PLAYER ONE puts us in a future where more of life is spent in virtual space than in physical space and most people prefer it that way. The year is 2044. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, young people are rushing toward life in digital culture and some of us (even those of us with experience in virtual worlds) hope an appreciation for the beauty of this physical earth lives on. It’s enough to make me want to “go green!”

Digitally Gracious

Etiquette, some say, has become less of a priority in our fast-paced society. Table manners are rarely taught, since most families eat on the run. We have microwaves, instant downloads of movies (no more driving to Blockbuster to pick one out), instant music choices (itunes and Pandora), and even instant ebook downloads. Educators are struggling to keep up with the technological world in which students now live. The slower pace of yesteryear (or was that just a decade ago) provided the luxury of thinking before we spoke, of eating together and actually conversing, of revising hand-written notes and letters, and learning how to build relationships through graciousness.

Currently, I am reading Sherry Turkle’s new book entitled Alone Together. Turkle writes, “Technology ties us up as it promises to free us up” (p. 32). Turkle cautions us about the future by describing a generation raised on “virtual pet toys” which often values the virtual as much, or more, than the physical. A virtual pet may require attention but real emotion is absent. Are we teaching young people the importance of thinking about others, not just themselves? Could it be that emphasis on technology applications is overtaking emphasis on human interaction?

In my National Writing Project training, a mentor compared grammar to good manners. The point of using grammar is not correctness– but clarity for the reader. Grammar shows good manners, so the reader does not have to struggle for meaning. Grammar is gracious. Is technology also changing grammar? English teachers tell me that, yes indeed, it is! Students prefer texting to email or talking. Explaining the registers of language and the importance of using good grammar and vocabulary is a huge challenge for teachers. Sometimes, it doesn’t even seem relevent. Will students need to have good penmanship in ten years and will they have the attention span to read the lengthy descriptive passages of a 19th century novel? Patience and perseverence require graciousness.

Times are changing and I am not one to stand in the way of change and hold on to antiquated modes. Language is a living, changing thing. It is inevitable that our words and our grammar change with the times. But consider this question… If we accept the changes in linguistics, the changes in information and communication modes, must we also give up good manners? Whatever technology innovations become widely adopted, can we humans remember that it is people behind them? Can we remember to care more about people than the inanimate tools we create? Can we find a way to be digitally gracious?

Augmented reality popping up everywhere

Each new technology trend I have found seems to begin as simply a novelty.  The real long-term purpose is not always clear upfront.  I downloaded the layar app to my phone and all I saw were silly random notes and tons of pizza locations!  Think about how this could have real benefits.  Sharing “post-it notes” on top of reality could archive our history and provide a trail for those who share common interests.  But, won’t we still have the problem of huge clutter to sort through (just like the web)?

A couple of examples:
http://vimeo.com/14878323

http://vimeo.com/8569187

I had fun trying out several AR demos at Metaio, including the virtual dressing room.  What’s kind of ironic in posting about technology trends in a blog is that it is old news as soon as you hit the “publish” button!  I imagine there are teenagers everywhere who have been checking this out before I even heard of it.  They are all rushing around the mall gathering virtual items for goldrun and posting on facebook.  Well, there’s an example of the novelty first arriving- which is a good way to learn any new concept.  I hope a meaningful long-term purpose is apparent soon.