Lab Notes

More Than Just Games – How Virtual Reality Can Transform Education

Most organizations we work with are truly excited about finding ways to use emerging technology, and it’s not unusual for us to meet with a client who already knows how they want to use it. But what if it’s not that easy? What do you do when the solution isn’t proven or the problem isn’t clear?

Enthusiasm for a solution can sometimes blind us to whether it’s the right solution for the problem at hand. Especially with shiny new tech, it’s easy to fall into the trap of over-investing in a solution seeking a problem, expecting the “coolness” of the technology to make the project successful. That’s not how innovation works. Instead, we need to first focus on the consumer problem to solve, and then the solution. Know the person, know their needs, then figure out how/what to build to help them.

When emerging technology really does offer a novel way to solve a human problem, the results can be exceptional. We recently helped a large university pilot their first virtual reality (VR) experience. Social work education, like many professional training programs, relies on practicums and other immersive experiences to prepare students for the situations they’ll face in their daily work. Home visits have been a mainstay of social work training for decades, but they face a few key drawbacks. They require an enormous (and expensive) administrative effort to coordinate, and because they take place in the real world with real people, the consequences of a home visit gone wrong are significant. Furthermore, they can’t effectively be scaled. Every student needs to experience them, but you can’t send a group of social workers into one home for a visit.

Virtual reality seemed promising, but we didn’t presume it would be the best solution. We could see the benefits–decreased administration infrastructure, cost-effective scalability, removing geography as an impediment, and the ability to lower student risk–but we needed to determine if it provided enough interaction to make it a reasonable substitute for a real-life experience. We decided to start small. Rather than investing in an expensive setup, we went with a mobile VR headset and an inexpensive 360° camera. We prototyped the experience using the Unity game engine, and worked closely with our client to incorporate their feedback into each iteration.

What’s more, it was apparent this sort of experience could benefit more than just social work students. What if medical students could practice giving bad news to a patient? Or if a police officer could work through a virtual hostage crisis? Our one deliverable has the potential to be used in so many different scenarios. We intentionally structured the code to be as flexible as possible, so we won’t have to start from square one when we want to create a new experience. It’ll be as easy as swapping in new content.

Truth be told, we’re not “live in prime time” yet, but we’re really excited about what the future could hold for this project. So far, it’s tested well with real users, and even early skeptics of the project have been impressed with how compelling the experience is. We’re thrilled to be delivering an educational experience that both executives and academics feel great about.

With things are on track from a business perspective, the next phase will be using the experience with students and learning from their responses. We might learn that it doesn’t equip them for a real site visit the way we’d hoped, but we’ll be ok if that’s the response we get. We’ve chased a high-value experience using a low-risk prototype, so we can stay focused on solving the problem instead of selling the solution. And we might learn that it’s incredibly valuable to our users, and therefore market-differentiating for the business.

This is just one of many experiments GoKart is helping this client lead. We’re exploring ways that the latest technologies can transform education, and in the meantime, developing new ways to evaluate short-term success. VR is one example, and there will be many more as the technological landscape continues to change and grow. We can’t wait to show you what’s next and tell you what is coming! But while tomorrow’s must-have tech may go by a different acronym, the importance of truly understanding the problem we’re solving will never change.

Born in Minnesota and bound for Switzerland, Catie Jo is rounding out her second internship with GoKart Labs before moving to Zürich to pursue a Master’s degree in virtual and augmented reality. She’s super enthusiastic (about the master’s, yes, but it’s also just her general state of being). With a passion for humans and how they work, technology is Catie Jo’s tool of choice for making people’s lives better. She has experience in ethical design, accessibility, and how to design for a multicultural audience. Outside of exploring VR/AR, you can also find her making games, playing fiddle, and dancing West Coast Swing. Her breadth of experiences and interests help bring a unique and energetic perspective to her work.

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