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Brown University uses VR to immerse students in American history

As Brown University’s Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence, Adam Blumenthal is an evangelist for the benefits of using virtual reality in higher education. For one pilot project, he and his team of students used Google’s Jump camera and Tilt Brush to recreate a neglected piece of American colonial history.

Although it isn’t as famous as the Boston Tea Party, the Gaspee Affair had an equally important effect on the American Revolution. The Gaspee was a British ship that patrolled the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island, harassing colonists and interfering with their trade. In 1772, Americans attacked the ship and set it on fire, thus setting the stage for the rebellion that would turn into the War of Independence.

For Adam Blumenthal, Professor of the Practice and Virtual Artist-in-Residence at Brown, this forgotten episode in history was a perfect candidate for reconstruction in virtual reality (VR). 'It’s a dramatic story,' he says, 'with cannon fire and gunshots and boat chases, but it’s also significant on the national stage. I chose it in part with Rhode Island pride, and I thought that, with the wow factor of VR, this Rhode Island story could be better known.' Many of the locations where the story unfolded are well-preserved, and the university has archives and artefacts to lend reality to the experiment.

So, with a team of students and a Jump camera, Blumenthal began drafting scripts, designing sets and building a detailed virtual world for his students to interact with the past. He notes that 'one of the things I love about VR is its ability to put people in places that are otherwise impossible, and in this case that’s stepping back in time in these very authentic recreations.' In addition to the students, Blumenthal recruited historical re-enactors to shoot several 'scenes' at nearby colonial sites: an eighteenth-century tavern, a court house, the private home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a ship captain’s quarters. Unlike in a film production, though, this rig comprised sixteen cameras producing 360-degree stereoscopic images in as high as 8K resolution.

'The wow factor of VR is an important part of opening the mind of the learner.'

Adam Blumenthal, Professor of the Practice and Virtual Artist-in-Residence, Brown University

Bringing the past to life

Based on the Go-Pro Odyssey, the Jump camera is simple to use and easy to transport. After setting up the tripod, the cameras capture 3D video on 16 micro-SD cards, which can then be easily uploaded to Google’s Jump program for stitching them together into a seamless whole. The video can be set up and shot in one day, with little post-production work needed besides some colour correction. Blumenthal points out that this convenience makes it especially useful when working with students: you can quickly produce something, then view it in Google’s Cardboard to add a sense of depth.

During production the team used Tilt Brush, Google’s 3D painting tool, to quickly produce storyboards of 3D scenes, as well as to create what Blumenthal calls 'virtual reality dioramas that combine Tilt Brush paint with 2D and 3D assets.' For example, period furniture could be added to a scene or a figure could be drawn and manipulated to fit into the virtual environment. Using a Unity workflow, they integrated their Tilt Brush sketches into the three-dimensional world they had reconstructed. Even students who didn’t have any experience with 3D modelling tools quickly picked up Tilt Brush. 'It’s an amazing tool,' Blumenthal remarks, 'it’s so intuitive to quickly teach someone how to use it and then they can just dive in and start creating the environments.' The prototype of the Gaspee Affair functions like a virtual museum: students can view the spaces from any angle and interact with objects. By touching a painting on the wall, for example, they can be brought into a 360-degree video of the burning of the Gaspee. In user tests, students enjoyed those videos just as much as the more game-like 3D environments.

The Gaspee project is just one of many on which Blumenthal consults in his role at Brown. He is also working with Brown's medical school faculty and students in the Brown Medical Simulation Center, using the Jump camera to capture 360-degrees of simulated surgeries in a mock operating room. By capturing the fast-paced, high-pressure simulations in high-quality panoramic video, students and lecturers have the opportunity to review the performance of teams, slowing down the action and reviewing every element of the surgical theatre with VR video in debriefing sessions. In addition to reconstructing the past, and documenting the present, Blumenthal notes that VR is especially well-suited for accessing remote locations (such as an underwater volcano or the landscape of Mars) or for practising high-stakes skills (for example, surgery). It provides what he calls a 'self-guided discovery experience' where students can explore and apply what they learn, even if that means virtually breaking things or blowing them up, because VR creates a safe place to fail, and the opportunity to learn from that. By turning students into 'active participants', VR enables them to learn through experimentation.

Improving student engagement

For Blumenthal, the ultimate goal for VR’s integration into education is exactly that: getting students engaged in their own learning. Citing a recent study by the Gallup organisation in which only half of all state school students in the US are engaged by their education, he argues that VR is one promising path forward. 'High school students are in schools that were designed for a previous century,' he says, adding that VR can 'deliver an experience that’s as compelling as a video game and still educational. That’s what I want to do.'

So, The Gaspee Affair is just the beginning. Although there isn’t much research yet on VR in education, Blumenthal expects it to play a larger role in schools as it becomes more accessible with tools such as Cardboard and as projects like his go public. At Brown he has assembled a studio team where students can experiment with new tools such as Daydream and he’s already planning a course where students produce their own virtual reality tours with Google Expeditions. Eventually, he imagines Brown could develop a fully fledged major in Virtual Reality Production and establish its own research institute to promote its use for education. 'The wow factor of VR is an important part of opening the mind of the learner,' Blumenthal concludes. 'Taking the experience off the pages of a textbook and putting the students in these environments and conveying the knowledge… it’s going to be really powerful.'

'VR can deliver an experience that’s as compelling as a video game and still educational.'

Adam Blumenthal, Professor of the Practice and Virtual Artist-in-Residence, Brown University

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