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Could the Oculus Rift Redeem Virtual Reality in Higher Ed?

While early virtual reality was ahead of its time, Oculus VR just might push the technology into the mainstream -- particularly in higher education.

Oculus Rift
Barone Firenze /

Some technologies arrive ahead of the ecosystems necessary to support them. Remember Sony's early '90s attempt to complement its Walkman line with a "Bookman" device, or NuvoMedia's short-lived "Rocket eBook?" Virtual reality, or VR, has been wandering in that very wilderness for decades, emerging most recently in ed tech circles in the form of virtual worlds such as Second Life. Despite the early hype and some genuinely innovative applications, these online, avatar-centric environments failed to win a large following among educators.

But just as Amazon's Kindle emerged at a more propitious moment to reboot the e-book, and Apple's iPad wiped from memory the ahead-of-its-time Newton, a company called Oculus VR is reinventing the old approach to virtual reality — and some colleges and universities are already testing the waters via virtual campus tours.

Founded in 2012 by Palmer Luckey and Brendan Iribe, Irvine, CA-based Oculus VR made headlines this year with its Rift virtual reality head-mounted display device, which users wear like goggles to experience a completely immersive virtual world. The VR buzz grew louder with the acquisition of the company by Facebook for about $2 billion. This endorsement by the social media giant was an important nod to an evolving technology, but news that Oculus VR had conquered the "barfing in a wastebasket" problem most people experienced with the headset, and that it had lured game industry legend John Carmack to join the company as CTO, were signs that this tech is rapidly going mainstream.

"The [Oculus Rift] technology and interface are so novel and intuitive that the headset itself is exciting, regardless of the content," Mark Dunn, Yale University's director of outreach and recruitment, told Campus Technology in an e-mail. "Matching up such a cool, seemingly futuristic technological experience with Yale's neo-gothic campus might seem like a strange combination, but I found they fit together perfectly."

Dunn is referring to his experience this summer with a demo of a Rift-based tour of his school by virtual tour provider YouVisit. The company has adapted all of its 1,000-plus virtual college tours so that they are viewable on an Oculus Rift headset. Two of those schools — Stonybrook University in Long Island, NY, and the University of New Haven in Connecticut — are in the early stages of developing plans to implement the technology in their marketing efforts. Yale is one of seven schools that have tested the technology with no definitive plans.

Other schools considering the potential of Rift-style head-set-based VR as a vehicle for moving their online tours into virtual reality include Indiana University at Bloomington, Audencia Nantes School of Management in France, Texas Tech University, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Colorado in Boulder and Hilbert College.

"There has been talk about virtual reality in the tech world for years," said YouVisit CEO Abi Mandelbaum, "but no device or software had come along that overcame some of the technical obstacles and was scalable for the general market. In September of last year, we tried it and we thought Oculus just might be it. Shortly after, we started developing on the platform and adapting our tour footage to be compatible with it."

Yale is confident that its existing online virtual tour is serving its purpose. As of this writing, the YouVisit tour of Yale has been viewed more than 240,000 times since 2011, with an average of nearly 10 minutes spent per visit, Dunn said. But the idea of presenting potential students with an immersive virtual reality tour is intriguing because of the intensified impact of the experience.

"When visitors tour our campus in person, there are plenty of oooh's and ahhh's," Dunn said. "Experiencing those same campus spaces in the [Oculus Rift] headset produces the same sense of wonder, without the distance and artifice associated with clicking through images on a browser. As I experienced it, the [Rift] technology enhanced the campus visit experience, rather than distracting from it — a very difficult task for any piece of technology."

Yale is currently planning to acquire its first Oculus Rift development kit (which the company recently made available) to further investigate its potential as an outreach tool, and perhaps enlist the school's recruiters to test it during outreach travel this fall.

"[Yale] officers often visit high schools to meet with groups of interested students during the school day, and I can imagine an officer bringing along a headset to showcase to a small group of students," Dunn said. "I also think we will want to feature the headset during some of our on-campus outreach and recruitment events. This might seem counterintuitive, but our existing YouVisit content includes many campus spaces that we can't normally open up to visitors. Weather and timing can always make it challenging to see everything you want when you visit campus. A virtual tour station during one of our on-campus events would be its own attraction, and the headset itself is just so cool, it's easy to imagine high school seniors lining up for hours just to try it on."

"I would characterize what we plan to do with the Oculus Rift as ‘enthusiastic experimentation,'" Dunn added. "We know the content is great and the experience is exciting. We'll keep playing around with opportunities to put it to use until we find the perfect niche or niches."

These are very early days for this technology, Mandelbaum pointed out. In fact, the Rift device is still a prototype. But Oculus VR has issued a development kit, and vendors have begun creating software for it. "Despite the fact that the development kit made it easier to develop virtual reality tours," Mandelbaum said, "it still took time for our developers to ramp up and become fluid on the platform. Since it is such a new technology, there are no standards, so our team at YouVisit has spent a significant amount of time developing those standards, such as how to navigate a virtual tour and make selections while only using your head, without keyboard and mouse."

After splashy coverage of the Facebook acquisition and release of the development kits, Oculus is keeping a low profile, a source who asked not to be identified told Campus Technology. "They don't want the hype to outpace their ability to deliver," the source said. "They want to turn down the heat for now and manage expectations."

And yet there's no lack of hype around this technology. "One day, we believe, this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. Iribe himself said in an interview that VR is destined to become "one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time."

But Oculus VR isn't the only vendor pursuing the face-computing delivery of VR. Sony recently unveiled a prototype VR headset for the PlayStation, and a startup called Vrvana is at work on a prototype for gaming called Totem VR.

Although Dunn sees promise in the Oculus Rift, he can't imagine even the most realist VR ever replacing the "traditional college visit experience," which involves much more than looking at buildings.

"We will always encourage students and parents to visit campus to ask questions of students and admissions officers; see how students engage their surroundings; and get a sense of what an ordinary day at Yale is like," he said. "I can imagine, however, that this technology will provide a very valuable supplement to the college visit experience, and could greatly expand the number of visitors who are able to feel what it's like to be inside a Yale Residential College courtyard, or to study inside one of Yale's magnificent libraries."

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