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The State of Virtual Reality in Education

Until recently, the expensive price tag for virtual reality technology has limited its use in education.

Full immersion into an alternate reality has been expensive for schools and universities to dive into — that is, until the last 12 months: Virtual reality is attracting educators who want to give students hands-on experiences with a lot of different tools.

This type of technology immerses students into a different world full of sites and sounds, whether it's a simulation of the cockpit of an airplane, a human body or Paris. More expensive immersion setups turn an entire room into a world with 360-degree interactive displays, while others use headsets or insert phones into a viewer that covers the users' eyes.

About nine major companies are vying for control of this space, said Brad Waid, an education futurist. On the low end, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR allow students to use their phone with a viewer to immerse themselves in a basic 360-degree experience. Pricier headsets, including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vibe and SONY Playstation VR that connect with computers or game consoles, allow users to explore the virtual environment, according to Wired. The easiest open source tool will likely win, Waid said.

"We'll make decisions as consumers [about] what we like and what we don't like, and there's a lot of fighting behind the scene," said Waid.

Over the next six to 12 months, Waid expects to see more of these companies open up their platforms so that programmers can create learning experiences for them. After all, the software is where the actual learning experience comes from; the hardware and displays are ways to view the content. EON Reality, Unimersiv and zSpace are just a few of the players on the learning experiences side of virtual reality, according to Touchstone Research.

By choosing one software platform that works with a wide variety of tools and media, universities won't be locked into a single piece of hardware and will be able to use them all, said Michael Mathews, chief information officer of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

"The enterprise approach will allow us to accommodate any technology and not swing back and forth or quit something just because we can't buy one more thing or accommodate another brand," said Mathews, who helped pick EON Reality for the university's platform.

This flexibility means that students at the private Christian university can start with a smartphone experience and work their way up to headsets and full immersion in a building that's full of virtual reality technology, thanks to a significant private donation. When students can touch what they're learning about, that helps them learn better, Mathews said.

Because virtual reality is still a big financial investment, many K-12 schools are starting with Google Cardboard to take students on field trips. But Waid said he would like to see more students have access to a higher-end headset and computer that will give them a sharp picture and a more realistic experience in makerspaces.

In crowded inner cities, schools that don't have automotive buildings or are waiting for them to be finished can still help students learn basic auto mechanics with virtual reality, Waid said. They can literally go into an automotive shop, manipulate all the engine parts and learn what they would need to do to fix a vehicle.