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.