The terms “virtual,” “augmented,” and “mixed” reality have been thrown around a lot lately in education, leaving many instructors understandably perplexed over their different meanings. Worse yet, discussions of these concepts often fail to adequately disconnect them from their gaming origin, making one wonder whether they have useful applications to education. The good news is that there are many educational uses of these applications, and a world of free educational content available to instructors. Better yet, most of these applications do not require expensive goggles or other equipment for making or viewing content.
The term “virtual reality” has gone through three iterations. The first referred to an animated world that the user entered through their computer by taking the form of an avatar representation of themselves. Second Life was the most famous of these systems. Users could build homes and other structures, as well as interact with one another within the world.
A number of educational institutions started using into Second Life, most using it for recruiting purposes by designing a mockup of one of their halls that prospective students could explore. Champlain College went a step further by connecting its site to its gaming program. Students would learn to create game elements by adding to the school’s Second Life site, designing new buildings and even a concert venue that hosted live concerts put on by local musicians. Jean Haefner at the University of Wisconsin–Stout built a gallery for students in her art and design class to allow students to have the experience of a virtual art exhibition, including interaction with the public who asked questions of the students. Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson created a space to broadcast lectures and hold discussions for his class Cyber One: Law in the Court of Public Opinion.
These early efforts eventually fizzled out due to the need for specialized programming skills to build the virtual worlds and falling pubic interest in Second Life itself. Virtual reality then reinvented itself by allowing participants to become their avatar’s virtual reality goggles. The user completely immersed themselves in a virtual world where the system would detect the user’s body movements to translate them into sword swings and the like. This added an exciting kinetic experience to virtual reality, so much so that because the user could not see their immediate surroundings the systems needed to project virtual walls around the user to avoid having them put a foot through a television set or the like.