Saturday, July 30, 2016

ISTE 2016 Impressions From a Noob

A month later, this post might be a little bit slow in coming but this experience was formative in my professional career so I thought I would share a few thoughts.

Mine was the distinct pleasure of attending the ISTE 2016 conference in Denver, Colorado at the end of June.  I had heard of the ISTE conference and never really considered that I would have the opportunity to go until someone really awesome at Samsung contacted me and asked me to be part of a panel on VR in education.  At this point I was only a few weeks out from the conference so I scrambled to rearrange some of my summer plans in order to be able to attend, and I am glad that I did.

After finding out that I was going to have the chance to go out to Denver, I started asking around to other fellow educators who had been.  One buddy referred to the event as a "boat show" which made a lot more sense when standing on the expo floor.  Actually my experience was unique from some others, let me elaborate.

A Unique Experience

The experience was unique for me in a couple of ways.  I was an exhibitor and as such, I didn't get quite the same participation as a regular attendee.  Typically, exhibitors spend their time on the expo floor showing off their educational technology solutions.  On the other hand, I was also there for my own professional development and took every opportunity to soak in the different presentations and activities.

My main reason for being at the conference was to participate in a panel discussion that was hosted by Samsung, the panel was a blast.  The other members of the panel were absolute rock stars and passionate about their respective fields. The panel consisted of Richard Byrne from FreeTech4Teachers, Jan Ståhlberg from Labster, and Nick Uhas from Nickipedia.  I thoroughly enjoyed being able to converse with them about the exciting aspects of VR in education.  The video below is a little promo that Samsung shot on the expo floor to show off the GearVR and get people thinking about VR in education.  You can also check out their write up on their blog. I'm super grateful to Samsung for the experience and have already started concocting ways to see if I can attend next year.

Other Takeaways

I consider myself an educator above all else and love what I do because I get to work with the kids.  It was interesting to me to see the tech community at large and the ways in which tech is being leveraged into education.  I understood the "boat show" metaphor immediately as the two cultures seemed to hit head on with educational decision makers left trying to discern between new-and-flashy and what actually had educational value.  I personally saw some of the biggest innovation coming from the smallest players, the grass roots ideas that came straight from hard working educators like myself.  Despite all the innovation, I often was left wondering if some of those smaller entities had much of a chance against the huge companies who were peddling their wares almost unaware of any real impact that it might have on education.

I guess that as educators, we aren't that much different from the students we teach.  Given all the hype that has always surrounded educational technology, it becomes a constant weighing of what things will contribute to our craft and what is merely a distraction.  Will we have the discipline to take advantage and leverage the academics held within cutting technology or will it be a crutch that we fall back on solely to entertain and impress?  Leaving the conference inspired me to start this blog and started me thinking about a lot of things.  This idea  is what excites me the most right now about education; bring on all the awesome new technology and leave it to the teachers to figure out how to use it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Day with the zSpace Tour Bus. Educational VR/AR Thingy

A few months back I was working with our school Instructional Tech Teacher and we noticed that the company zSpace had launched a western coast tour to show off their technology.  We were lucky enough to get a visit to our school one afternoon and the technology was interesting to say the least.  I hadn't heard much in the news about their system and so I quickly did a little bit of online scrounging to learn a few things about what they had going on.

zSpace Tour Bus

The bus was actually more of a pimped out RV that had been fitted with 15 or so stations so that even my huge classes could pack in and test out the system with a partner.  The group of guys running the experience were extremely accommodating and super excited about what they were doing. My kids loved the experience and were disappointed when the demo was over and I had to drag them back to the classroom.

What makes zSpace so unique?

zSpace has actually been around for quite a while.  They have a much different take on virtual reality than some of the other players out there right now.  Instead of strapping on a HMD or even using a mobile device like we see with most AR, zSpace uses a proprietary desktop PC for their system.  By donning a pair of positionally tracked glasses and manipulating a stylus that is also tracked in 3 dimensions, the images on the screen come to life.  Think of something akin to a really precise wii remote with a 3D display for education.

zSpace's Software

Perhaps the most compelling part of the zSpace system is their software.  Given that the company has been around for a while, its no surprise that they seem to have a head start on some of the competition.  Educational company Lifeliqe has recently received quite a bit of media attention for partnering with HTC Vive to create 3D educational models for demonstration in the classroom.  My experience was that zSpace has already accomplished this same exact thing.  I was able to dissect animals and organs and even a running V8 engine using their software.  Even more impressive to me was their set of physics tools that allowed the user to perform simple experiments while tweaking settings such as gravity and friction of surfaces.  It really did have some great educational applications.

The Catch?

The entire zSpace hardware/software package is completely proprietary.  I kept thinking while running through the demos just how cool it would be to get this all into a true VR experience.  While it isn't currently possible, I would love to see the zSpace software open up to be used on more hardware.  With some of the stunning experiences being had on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, I think that zSpaces software would be a natural fit.  I definitely loved how far they have come in terms of an extremely interactive, outstandingly educational set of software and simulations.  Check out another post about educational simulations in VR if you're interested.

Ever used zSpace in the classroom?  Weigh in with thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dynamic 3D Viewers for VR

In my last post, I postulated on whether or not VR would be able to replace some of the functions of 3D printing.  I mean, just think about it.  If you were able to design a 3D model and then interact with that model without necessarily printing it out, wouldn't that be pretty slick?  3D printing of course would still have a place in certain manufacturing of real world parts but in terms of the educational value, VR might accomplish a lot of the same purposes.

It seems a little bit hard to wrap your brain around this idea of manipulating virtual objects in virtual reality but check out this demo video of some of the things that Oculus is working on in terms of touch input.  HTC Vive already allows similar interactions in VR.

Now envision all the tools we currently have coming together in one to allow students the ability to design things and then bring their designs into VR to experiment with.  There are currently a few programs that allow the user to import 3D models designed on the computer and then interact with them in VR.  IrisVR and qrVR exist as a way to see what is currently in the works as far as dynamic 3D viewers.

Check out my video review of the two different apps.

Got thoughts and ideas about how VR/AR might change education or ways you want to use it in your classroom?  Weigh in on the comments!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Will VR and AR Make 3D Printing Obsolete?

Anyone even semi-initiated has noticed that 3D printing has taken the headlines of educational technology for the last few years.  During the ISTE 2016 conference in Denver this year, I counted at least a dozen different companies who were promoting their 3D printing solutions for education.  During the conference I also began to hear a few whispered conversations surrounding 3D printing that echoed some of the same frustrations that I have had at implementing the technology at the middle school where I work.  “3D printing is great on the class level but is not feasible on the individual student level.”  “It almost requires its own part-time position to run a 3D printing program.”

Running a 3D printing program in school

Actually, I had the opportunity of debuting our 3D printing program last year at my school and I have the scars to prove it.  After running the machines constantly for weeks at a time to churn through my student’s 3D printed creations, I often contemplated that there must be a better way.  Admittedly, there is a bit of a learning curve to 3D printing that simply requires some initial time invested; however, even with the machines running smoothly and having an idea of how a 3 hour print will turn out, the printing process can take a lot of time for even the fastest printers.

Early on in the process of getting my kids to 3D print, I had to establish a few guiding rules:

  1. Everyone gets a shot at printing before I can print any of your revisions.
  2. Your print must take less than 4 hours to complete.
  3. If you design it, I will print it.
  4. No printing other people's projects that you've found online regardless of how cool they are. 

As far as 3D printing goes, I often have felt like the 3D printing Grinch whose only goal was to crush the 3D printing hopes and dreams of anyone wishing to print out 3D Yoda busts or melted Vader pencil toppers.  I have stood by my reasoning though as 3D printing in schools really is about the design process.  Understanding how to create using precision and scale, and subsequently bringing those designs to fruition.  I should probably get around to the title of this post and answer the question, will VR/AR make 3D printing in schools obsolete?

How is 3D printing useful in education?

I should probably start by recognizing that 3D printing serves a few very practical purposes that go beyond the design process.  Anyone who has printed a custom tripod mount for their cell phone or printed a replacement knob for their microwave can appreciate the production value of one-off, functional, physical parts.  In this sense, 3D printing won’t go away and I am excited to see the technology progress to be more cost effective and versatile.  So what about everything else?  By far the most valuable aspect to 3D printing that I have seen in the classroom is to aid in the design process.  Students learning the tools to design in 3D, create precise 3D models, and then continuing to tweak their designs based on outcomes has been an incredible experience that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Adding VR/AR into the mix, cutting to the chase

How will VR/AR change this?  Imagine if you could skip the last and most time-consuming step in this process.  Imagine if all of the processes of designing a 3D model culminated with simply bringing that model into virtual reality.  (By the way, this is already possible.)  Take this thought one step further, what if you could test your designs in virtual reality?  There are already several companies who are exploring this idea in education and I think it is going to to be a game changer.  In my next post, I will demo a few examples of software that can already do this.  As is true with most of the virtual reality content that I have tried in the last couple of years, seeing is believing.

Check out my next post that details some of the software that can actually do this sort of thing already.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What Labster is Doing so Right for Educational VR

Simulations are one of the most utilized strategies in the educational tool belt.  If you think about it, school in general is one big simulation of the real world.  "Okay kids, let's get started for the day, I want everyone to imagine for a second that you have been asked by your boss to create a proposal for . . ."
Almost everything that happens in school is an approximation of what the students might expect elsewhere in real life.  As an educator, my ultimate goal is to prepare my students to be successful upon leaving school.  Enter the art of the simulation.

It should be no surprise that software company Labster is helping to redefine educational technology with their science lab simulations.  Labster achieves a great balance of gameplay elements, quizzes, and interaction for the user.  One of the things that makes the Labster experience in VR so compelling is that their interactive labs were developed first as compelling educational experiences.  Add VR to the mix and it becomes clear why they have received such glowing support in the last few years.  When you enter the demo C.S.I. lab in Labster for the Gear VR, your lab assistant reminds you that the equipment that you are using "costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in real life but in the virtual world, you can use them again and again."  The game continues to remind you that you won't break anything but you can get an approximation of how it would be to use the equipment in real life.  Since VR brings us one step closer to having real, tangible experiences from the classroom or the couch or wherever, I can't think of a better medium than VR for educational simulations.
The level of engaging simulations that VR can create for education is perhaps a litmus test for the success that educational VR can accomplish in the classroom.  Most teachers who are enthusiastic about using technology in their instruction are looking for what is new and what can revolutionize the way that they teach.  VR certainly has that potential and companies like Labster are paving the way for what true immersive educational simulations have to offer.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Jan Ståhlberg from Labster who reminded me that "science is beautiful."  Labster's approach to helping us see the beauty of life sciences through VR should exist as a call to all educational software developers to show us the beauty in their craft, and the beauty of learning, oh yeah, and do it in VR already. :)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Creating Video Content for VR

Video in virtual reality escapes the confines of static viewing in only two dimensions.  Why is that big for education?  360° and 3d video can allow for a heightened level of immersion that isn't possible with older technology.  Imagine an educational video that places students in the middle of the action.  When you turn your head, you actually see what is happening to the side and even behind you.  Imagine students returning to watch the video again and again in order to pick out more details or explore different perspectives.  Until very recently, creating video content for virtual reality has not been achievable for the amateur and required expensive equipment with lots of know-how.  Recent developments will make it easier than ever to create video for virtual reality experiences that can be brought into the classroom.

3D Video

This past year in my class, we wanted to get our feet wet with recording video that could be used in virtual reality.  Since we didn't have the equipment to achieve 360° video, we decided to go with simple stereoscopic video.  Stereoscopic video creates the same effect that most people have experienced when they go and see a 3D movie in the theater.  Simply put, you have two slightly different images, one for each eye, when you view the images side by side in a VR headset, it resembles what our eyes do naturally to create a perception of depth.  We already had a few GoPro video cameras in our lineup of equipment and the GoPro Studio software for PC and MAC.  Also, it just so happens that the GoPro Studio app has a fairly simple way to create 3D side by side video.
Some of the things we learned along the way:
  • The GoPro cameras work best when placed as closely together as possible.
  • It's important to get the left and right video perfectly synced.  I recommend the WiFi remote but have had good results from a steady two hands on the shutter buttons.
  • Piecing together the footage is relatively easy but adding any titles or transitions is a different story.
  • You'll probably need to go a DIY route to create a mount for a tripod if you have any of the newer GoPro cameras but I'm sure you could be successful with even some simple Velcro.
  • Filming in 3D is different than filming in 2D.  Camera zooms and pans must be slowed down and there is a "sweet spot" to the 3D effect.

360° Video

Consumer level 360° cameras are already on the market with several others being developed for release in the coming months or years.  Check out this article and video if you're interested in learning more about what is currently available.  Samsung will also soon release the Samsung Gear 360 camera in the United States and has received a number of glowing reviews for consumer grade cameras.  All of the consumer grade options currently run in the $350-$500 range.

What next?  

The holy grail of immersive VR video is stereoscopic 360° that not only allows 360° of viewing in all directions but provides depth to the experience.  Expect more to come.  In another post I will highlight some of the current sources of 360° video that are already available.

Additional Links

Guide to Stereoscopic Video on GoPro

Monoscopic vs. Stereoscopic 360° Video

YouTube 360° Video

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Delving into App Development for VR

After starting out last year with a Gear VR in my classroom, it became apparent fairly early on that virtual fieldtrips were not all that VR had to offer.  In search of a more academic experience in virtual reality we stumbled upon this little gem of a website put out by Samsung and geared towards developers.

It is probably worth mentioning that content has been added recently to this page, probably to reflect Samsung's release of a 360° camera in its lineup of virtual reality wares.

The specific set of tutorials with which my 8th grade students had relative success were the exercises devoted to developing Apps and Games with Game Engines.  These tutorials walk the user through the following steps:
  • setting up the development environment with Android SDK and Unity
  • getting familiar with workflow and interface of Unity and creating a project
  • using downloadable assets and simple scripts to make a 360° photo viewer for Android.
  • building out the app and pushing it to your device for use on the Samsung Gear VR
Initial thoughts?  Awesome, what a way to bring some of the concepts of the technology classroom into real-world application.  The groups who attempted these tutorials gained a much better understanding of filesystem structures and were even able to extend their rudimentary understanding of coding by learning some basics about scripts in Unity.

What next?  This initial tutorial could even be the basis to a VR app development course devoted to creating simple apps in Unity.  I'm super excited to get my kids thinking in this direction as I see VR to be a big part of their future technology and want to see them begin to develop the skillset.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Simple VR Content Creation

A huge challenge right now with VR in education is the lack of educational content.  One of the most prolific uses of the technology right now in schools is the VR field trip.  Google has recently made it's Expeditions available for download which is exciting if one of their prepared field trips matches what you're learning.  For the other 99% of compelling experiences that we might wish to have in the classroom, there are some free and easy tools that can be used to create your own 360° photos.  Imagine you are vacationing over the summer or over the weekend you go to see an art exhibit that relates to the content you teach in your class.  Most newer smartphones have the capability of stitching together a 360 photosphere by taking multiple pictures from different angles.

To get the idea of how this works, it is probably easiest to download an app and start trying it for yourself.  Many of the new Samsung phones have a free camera plugin called "Surround Shot" that will walk you through the steps of creating a 360° photo.  iOS users can use the the Google Street View app to access a photosphere function as well.

Once you've snapped your 360° photo, simply load it into a compatible viewer for google cardboard, Gear VR, Oculus, Vive, etc.  The Oculus 360° Photo app works great on Gear VR and the Oculus Rift.  

*Pro Tip: Use a tripod with your phone and turn off any advanced features such as flash, white balance, autofocus in order to get the best results.

You could also check out this quick Instructable by DivideWorks if you're still having trouble wrapping your brain around the technique.  If you want to test out a simple 360° photo, try this one of my empty lab at school.

Saturday, July 2, 2016


Virtual reality has seen a huge resurgence in the last five years.  Consumer VR has already hit the market from companies such as Oculus, HTC, and Samsung, with another handful of companies who will follow shortly.  While much of the hype surrounding VR has been focused on the gaming industry, there are quite a few other industries that have begun to express interest and even proven to have compelling application when it comes to virtual reality.  The purpose of this blog is to focus on VR in education, application and new developments.

I am a middle school teacher in the Portland, Oregon metro area.  I am a VR enthusiast who first got interested in the technology as an educational tool after purchasing a Samsung Gear VR unit for my classroom.  I'll use this blog to report out on successes and failures, research, and musings of all things VR related in the classroom.