Mona Voelkel

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VR Is Here But Is It Safe for Our Kids?

IMG_0367As an experienced educator with a passion for teaching yg, learning and thoughtful integration of technology into the classroom, I have carefully noted the recent explosion of “Virtual Reality” into our real world.  What is “Virtual Reality?”  Think of those headsets, either the Google Cardboard ones or the higher-end Samsung, which cover a person’s eyes and half of their face.

If you are the person wearing the headset, you may have, in the case of Google Cardboard, loaded your iPhone into a slot within the headset, and held the device up to your eyes.  Before you, the viewer acts as a “stereoscope, a device for viewing a stereoscopic pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, as a single three-dimensional image.”  Think of the View Masters of our youth, which use the same underlying technology as the VR viewers.  As you peer in, you may be looking at, say, a video or image of the underwater ocean except, unlike a regular video or image, the experience of viewing is much more immersive.  You feel as if you are actually swimming among the underwater fish and fauna.  This is reinforced by the magic of 360 degree video/images, that if you turn your head to the right, you are able to actually “swim” right, left, up, or down, and view the entire ocean panoramically.

Cool, huh?

Yes, it is cool but is it safe for our children?  Through my personal explorations this summer of the educational applications of this technology, I was extremely happy to see that these VR images don’t require a headset to view.  They can be viewed without a headset on a SmartBoard, iPad or a laptop and navigated by touch or arrows.  Viewing the VR images this way retains much of the benefits with none of the drawbacks that I encountered when using the free VR NY times viewer that came with my newspaper subscription, namely a feeling of light eye strain and a slight dizziness.

This made me think about the suitability for these viewers in the classroom.  Some quick research greatly surprised me as none of the headset manufacturer’s recommend use of the headsets by children under age thirteen except Google Cardboard, which recommends, “adult supervision” and “frequent breaks.”  My recommendation would be that school districts set guidelines for the use of these headsets in their classrooms, along with obtaining parental consent before student use, especially for children under age 13.

The local news was agog over the new “Pokemon Go” phone app, which operates as an augmented reality scavenger hunt where fictional creatures are caught by walking through and throwing “poke balls” from your screen when the creatures pop up virtually as you walk through your real world.  The 6 o’clock news was covered with stories of players, from pre-school to mid-thirties, head down as they walked around parks, museums and through the streets, trying to catch the creatures with their eyes glued to their phones.  While local news trumpeted this app as a way to get kids out of the house and moving, the level of player distraction seems to pose some safety issues.  It is important to look away from any digital screen in order to minimize eye strain.  What steps are being taken to keep our children safe and healthy with these new VR apps?

Virtual reality is here in the hands of some of our children right now and will be moving into more of our classrooms.  There are many benefits with  virtual reality from increasing student engagement, building content knowledge and expanding empathy by experiencing other’s worlds.  Let’s capitalize on these benefits but exercise due diligence on the health and safety drawbacks and set some common-sense recommendations for our homes, classrooms and communities.  Looking forward to the conversation…




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