Virtual Reality event at the uCreate Studio: the role of VR in reducing risk and building empathy

A recent event organised by our colleagues at the Institute for Academic Development for the Future Teacher initiative explored the use of virtual reality currently and its potential use for teaching and learning in the future. It was held at the uCreate Studio, the University of Edinburgh’s Community Makerspace. The event was kicked off by Matt Ramirez of Jisc. Matt is the Futures senior innovation developer at Jisc working on a host of projects including AR-Sci, a 3 year EU funded project aiming to enhance science secondary education and ultimately inspiring students to work with STEM in their future careers.

Participants were from across the university and represented potential for a host of disciplinary and interdisciplinary uses of VR: Social and Political Science; Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences; Design; Health; Engineering; Geosciences; Veterinary Medicine; Law; Social Work; Maths; Informatics; Innovation Studies & Biological Sciences; Digital Skills and Training; Population Health Sciences; and Education. The range alone suggests a technology that is perceived to have significant potential for teaching and research across the university.

Matt walked us through the use of VR and how it has evolved over the years from early 1990s sci-fi to now, highlighting its movement through the Gartner Hype Cycle over the years culminating in its emergence in 2017 out of the trough of disillusionment into the slope of enlightenment. VR didn’t take off initially largely due to a lack of appetite, a lack of portability, and a general lack of content. There were physiological issues: in earlier iterations, everything was in focus leading to difficulty focusing on any one thing in particular; there were cases of nausea and discomfort. Matt pointed out that he rarely goes longer than 20 minutes in a VR session at any one time.

Matt was careful to place VR amidst a larger Mixed Reality (MR) continuum from the physical environment to augmented reality (AR) to augmented virtuality (AV) to virtual reality (VR). While this event focused on VR, for teaching and learning we can see a range of potential across the larger continuum. 2017 sees VR in a progressive space: use cases are beginning to emerge in museums, in medicine, and beyond; accessible content (Sketchfab, in particular); the use of haptic feedback in simulations, explorations of Tutkanhamen’s tomb with Oculus, and the rise of very low-priced headsets like Google Cardboard, along with some openly and quite visible content like the Guardian’s VR content.

We discussed potential use cases for the university itself. VR as planning tools for the development of learning spaces. Virtual field trips to support disciplinary activity. Virtual apprenticeships where students can use VR to explore potentially hazardous experiences: surgery, disaster response, nuclear hazards, and more. A study was mentioned that pointed to a study on racial bias with VRand how the results show that adopting a certain virtual race, regardless of the real one, has an effect on certain unconscious behaviours towards virtual people with the same color. Stanford is pursuing a line of research on this racial dimension as I write. We then cascaded into the UN short VR film Clouds Over Sidra, which follows a twelve-year-old girl named Sidra in the Za’atari camp in Jordan — currently home to 84,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Themes emerged here that could inform both our values driving forward with this technology and potential use cases, and arguably the most tangible were perception and empathy. How does what we see feed into what we believe to know, how that confirms existing bias. How could VR develop empathy, to allow us to critically explore the role of empathy on untangling some of these seemingly intractable issues? Experiencing life as a refugee waiting for asylum, experiencing virtual immersions in autism, perceiving the world as an infant might, all available now in VR. All potentially shaping our shared vision of the future of digital education here at the university. Elaine summed it up nicely.

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