In 1995, Nintendo released the “Virtual Boy,” the company’s first attempt at virtual reality technology. The console offered gamers a 3-D experience for gaming.
It failed, and was Nintendo’s worst selling console of all time.
Gamers didn’t see another serious attempt at VR technology until recently. In 2016, Playstation released their own VR system, a set of goggles that brings the gamer into different worlds.
Virtual reality technology is being used for more than gaming, though — the University of Oregon is utilizing the technology to connect its students in fields that range from language and communication to early education.
According to global research and advisory firm Gartner, an estimated 60 percent of U.S. higher education institutions will be using VR technology by 2021 to enhance efficiency in learning, attract and retain students and help prepare students for their careers.
UO isn’t the only Pacific Northwest university with virtual reality technology. University of Washington, Portland State University, Oregon State University and Washington State University are all implementing various forms of the technology.
In 2017, UO partnered with a company in Portland called 360 Labs to create the UO 360 app, which used UO-branded VR glasses to give admitted students and their families a way to explore the campus from the app. From riding with the Duck into Autzen Stadium to students learning in a ceramics class, the UO 360 app gives students an opportunity to get accustomed to the campus and its activities.
Lauren Miller, the director of strategic communications in student services, said that the app saw a great deal of success on a national level, and UO released a second, improved version of the app in early March 2019.
Students were mailed cardboard VR goggles that they could use with the app and their smartphones. Miller says they mailed the goggles to thousands of newly admitted students. The app had over 11,000 downloads and was opened around 60,000 times.
“We’ve received a lot of feedback that this is pretty neat and pretty innovative,” Miller said. “My favorite is that a woman from New Mexico that was so excited that her grandma who couldn’t travel could see what it’ll be like in a science lab where her granddaughter will be a scientist.”
The university’s involvement with virtual reality and augmented reality technology has grown in the few years that VR technology has been available. The Center for Applied Second Language Studies has created Virtual and Augmented Reality Language Training, or VauLT, to incorporate both VR and AR technology into language learning by immersing users into the language they need in their careers.
According to Julie Sykes, CASLS director, VauLT will create language modules that can be used in a variety of careers that can help build rapport and help navigate in different business settings such as doctor’s offices, sexual assault counseling intake interviews or parent-teacher meetings.
“We’re really looking at a bunch of workforce spaces and thinking through ways we can use virtual reality to give professionals the language that they need without them having to learn everything,” Sykes said. “VR was chosen because of the need for embodiment when it comes to language learning — it’s helping to reduce the cognitive load and focus on the language.”
At UO’s Portland campus, the Oregon Reality Lab has a brand new lab that incorporates these technologies as part of the School of Journalism and Communication to teach and research immersive media and ethics.
Donna Davis, associate professor and Oregon Reality Lab Director, said the lab will serve as a testing ground for developing virtual and augmented realities to tell stories in journalism and communication.
“We study Facebook and Twitter and we teach how to use them as social media, and social virtual worlds are social media on steroids,” Davis said. “Virtual worlds are places where we can connect, they’re places where we can teach, they’re places where you can create any type of environment you want for any kind of purpose that you want.”
VR in the SOJC also extends to public relations and advertising to create branded experiences and build brands in virtual platforms.
“Everyone talks about marketing today and communication is built more and more on experience,” Davis said. “And what better way to do that than with virtual reality?”
In Eugene, Megan Danell is an architecture student in the UO’s College of Design who took a class winter term through a grant awarded to the Baker Lighting Lab that used VR in order to study lighting and color in architecture. Using VR goggles, Danell and her classmates were able to visit famous structures all across the world to analyze buildings for lighting.
“I’m finding this to become a very big area of focus right now,” Danell said. “As architects, being able to look in the space and say, ‘Okay, that ceiling is too high,’ or ‘That wall is too thick,’ is important.”
More than research, VR technology can be used for bringing architectural project proposals to life. Dannell said many architecture firms are looking toward VR to present their projects.
“Sometimes clients don’t necessarily understand your vision,” Danell said. “You can show them a render, but when they’re able to be immersed in the space that you’re proposing, it can be used to sell that project. With us being experienced in VR, it keeps us at the forefront of the industry.”
Much like Danell’s classes in architecture that brought them face-to-face with structures halfway across the world, bringing the students closer to the structures they were studying.
“We need to know about these architecture projects, but we’ve never been there,” Danell said. “The fact that we were able to go into VR and see those architectural spaces was pretty fascinating.”
As for virtual technology in education, the future looks bright. According to Miller, the university plans to evolve with the technology that’s available to them.
“I wish I could predict the future, but I think we’ll continue to try and be innovative and leverage this type of platform in ways that help us achieve our goals and be as accessible as possible,” Miller said. “I don’t know if it’ll be VR or AR or even another new technology, but we will continue to be innovative.”