Remember The Magic School Bus? Who doesn’t right, and who didn’t want to tag along with Ms. Frizzle on her many exciting adventures? I, for one, was completely jealous of her students. Learning is too often accompanied by arduous, repetitive schedules of seemingly arbitrary, tedious tasks; but with her magic bus, Ms. Frizzle actually made learning fun. What a novel concept right! Well, all that is about to change, thanks to the long sought after realization of virtual reality (VR). The Magic School Bus will no longer be just a kid’s fairy-tale, but will truly be a reality (well a virtual reality at least). Slip on a VR headset and you’ll be instantly immersed in any number of novel experiences within countless worlds limited only by our collective imagination. You’ll be able to explore a multiverse of worlds that exist at any real or imagined time in the past, present, or future, at any spacial scale, from any conceivable perspective. Are you in the mood to zip around a quantum, molecular, or micro world? Maybe a traditional macroscopic world? Or do you feel more like a trip around a solar system, galaxy, or universe? Perhaps outside the observable universe today? I always wondered what the Big Bang would look like. What’s it like to be part of the inner workings of a cell? How would it feel to be one of the lesser dinosaurs desperately trying to escape a T-Rex on the hunt? Let’s just slip on my trusty headset here and find out!
Yeah, yeah, I heard all this before in the 90’s and it never came to be. Isn’t this like another decade or so off? No. This is really happening today! Back then we just didn’t have the necessary capacity in affordable computing, networking, etc. required for good VR. But now we do. Everyone who’s anyone is already fully on board: Google, Samsung, Microsoft, Facebook, Sony, Valve, HTC, et. al. All the big players are rushing to grab up market share and investing in new software and hardware which is sure to result in ever better user experience.
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The advent of virtual reality technology will allow practically anyone to enroll in any of the ever-expanding multiverse of virtual experiences – the scope of which would make Ms. Frizzle herself blush uncontrollably. Really? Isn’t VR super expensive? Not necessarily. At the time of this writing, the highest-end VR system can be had for ~US$1400 (HTC Vive, US$799 + GTX 1080, US$599). Although, I think many will agree this isn’t prohibitively expensive considering what you get in return, cheaper setups such as the Oculus Rift can be had for much less. Also, the less expensive Samsung Gear VR and Playstation VR are said to also offer a great VR experience for a fraction of the price. And of course there’s the poor man’s option, Google Cardboard, coming in at a measly $15. Certainly, the levels of immersion and ‘presence’ decrease with your budget; however, friends have told me even Cardboard can offer surprisingly compelling experiences.
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Of course it will take some time for the developer community to flesh out the new virtual reality stores with killer experiences. There is still much software work to be done to mature the leading VR marketplaces such as Steam VR and Google VR. However, most existing big game titles have already, or are currently working on, added support for virtual reality where their genres are amenable to VR. And already there are many amazing new cross-platform titles already available for download – for example, the Apollo 11 VR Experience:
But isn’t virtual reality merely a niche platform for hardcore gamers? Don’t kid yourself – search way, way back in your memory to the first time you heard of a smartphone. At first I remember thinking “meh, I already have a dumb phone, what’s the big deal?” Of course the smartphone revolution took the world by storm. The same will be true of virtual reality, e.g. HTC sold 15,000 $800 Vive headsets within first 10 minutes of initial release, with Steam estimating a current Vive userbase of 100,000 strong. No need to take my word for it, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Valve, and Co. have already spoken. And just as there were, and still are, tremendous opportunities and rewards for mobile app developers to distribute their apps on the major app stores, so too for VR developers. In fact, the opportunities are certain to be much greater for VR developers, simply due to the sheer magnitude and scope of possibilities offered by the greater virtual reality platform. There’s little doubt that consumer adoption of VR will reach critical mass in the next couple years. So far we’ve only seen the tippiest-little-tip (to quote the technical term) of the iceberg that will be our very own simulated multiverse. The expansion of this simulated VR multiverse will only be limited by our collective imaginations!
A recent wired.com article said of Google Expeditions, a new VR field trip app, that it “promises to take students places a school bus can’t, unless their teacher is Ms. Frizzle.” But this misses the whole point that with VR Ms. Frizzle can actually be your teacher! Certainly, virtual reality is set to be a game changer for education, owing not only to its vast potential, but also to its broader accessibility. It offers education a platform that is soon to be easier to use, more intuitive, cheaper, faster, higher quality, broadly scalable, and more location independent than any other means of education available to date. All we need now is make our ideas a virtual reality.
Consider yourself duly notified of the imminent VR revolution. So, sit down (or stand up), jack in, and I’ll see you on the other side. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just heard Ms. Frizzle is offering a new class: Sex Ed… Don’t judge me lol, you know you would!