Not now mom, I’m on the class… the virtual one!

Image of a virtual reality classroom

Virtual reality classroom
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This week we are revisiting once again education. We already talked about collaborative learning and how ICT helps in that process in a previous post.

Another interesting trend in CSCL is the use of virtual worlds and gaming. Currently, there is a variety of applications on the web offering educational virtual worlds for kids that require children to complete projects and tasks, play games and throughout this process learn a variety of subjects. Web sites like JumpStart, Club Penguin, Webkinz World, National Geographic Animal Jam etc. offer various educational games, quizzes and activities in the context of a virtual world where children are learning while playing. However, there are still questions on how accessible are these kind of applications for children with disabilities.

As already presented in the consumer and lifestyle section there are already a variety of technologies for rendering virtual reality scenes such as OpenGL, Direct3D, Java3D and VRML. In addition, major companies in the ICT industry such as Sony are investing on virtual reality gear such as the new head mounted display by Sony introduced lately. HMZ-11 as it is called, costs $800 and is able to display 2D and 3D immersive scenes. The small screens in the device are equivalent of having your very own 150 inch movie screen only twelve feet away. It also a built-in virtual 5.1 surround sound headphones which can simulate a movie theatre’s surround sound. Similar devices have also been presented by other manufacturers such as the WRAP1200 by Vuzix and the ST1080 by SiliconMicroDisplay.

The devices presented earlier are mainly used for output of virtual reality scenes. However, a complete virtual reality system must also use some kind of input devices beyond the traditional keyboard and mouse. Advances in that area can be seen by Microsoft which presented Kinect, a camera based device which can recognize body movements, gestures and faces and provide an interaction with an Xbox device through them. Microsoft also released an API for developers in order to take advantage of Kinect’s potentials by developing their own applications. From then on there’s been a variety of applications coming from various developers allowing people to control and interact with their computers through movements and gestures. In August, Apple has also filed a patent for a similar system allowing users to control their devices through movements showing that motion control of devices is a possible emerging trend of the future. Going some steps further in that direction some months ago, Gallotti, Raposo & Soares presented in a research paper a virtual reality glove (v-Glove) able to simulate touch through haptic feedback.

The developments presented earlier show that the future might see virtual educational worlds being accessible in additional modalities other than the current visual one. This way virtual reality might become more accessible to persons with disabilities. For example students with mobility impairements could avoid inaccessible classroom environments by using virtual ones or students with visual impairemtns could also use virtual classes to follow lectures in an environment adapted to their needs at their place. Having said that and going one step further I wonder if it might also be useful to investigate the benefits in social and interpersonal skills of children with disabilities and behavioral disorders through virtual worlds. How could a virtuall representation of theirselve help them in developing social and interpersonal skills instead of encouraging them to stay home forever? Could it be used as a therapy method for people with behavioral disorders or not?

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