The History of Virtual Reality and how it is Being Used Today in Schools

Posted: December 11, 2018

The History of Virtual Reality 

Virtual reality (VR), the immersive learning tool that is finally making its way into almost every University, has actually been around for quite some time. 

Defined by the Virtual Reality Society, “…Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”  

As technology began to advance even more in the 1900s, so did its wonder and the excitement of its potential opportunities. 

Morton Helig, cinematographer, whom thought that audiences would be more captivated by stories if their senses were stimulated, created the Sensorama in 1957. The Sensorama, although not interactive, offered an immersive experience that included multisensory stimulation to make you feel as if you are in a virtual world. Helig went as far as including oscilating fans, audio speakers, as well as odor emitters. But it wasn’t until 1961 that the first VR head-mounted display (HMD), Headsight, was created by two Philco Corporation engineers (Srivastava et al. 23(2): 83-85).    

Headsight included a video screen as well as a tracking system which was linked to a close circuit camera system. This virtual reality display was used in military training operations and its purpose was to place the user in a dangerous situation but in a virtual real looking environment (Srivastava et al. 23(2): 83-85).      

Finally, 30 years later, this immersive, interactive experience was coined “virtual reality.” The term virtual reality was created by Jaron Lanier, whose company VPL Research, was the first of a few companies to sell virtual reality tools (History of Virtual Reality).     

How Virtual Reality is Being Used in Higher Education   

Because of VR’s capability to immerse and engage all users in what they are learning, VR headsets and labs can commonly be found in University classrooms, media centers, libraries, and makerspaces.  

VR has been used to teach a variety of subjects all the way from astronomy and biology to history and social studies. For example, students at the University of Westminster can practice building a murder case by searching for clues in the school’s virtual space built for students studying criminal law (How Virtual Reality could transform Higher Education, 2017).  

This learning tool has the ability to fully immerse the user in another environment that may not otherwise be possible.   

“Virtual reality helps students feel immersed in an experience, gripping their imagination and stimulating thought in ways not possible with traditional books, pictures or videos, and facilitates a far higher level of knowledge retention (ClassVR, 2017).”   

Another use of virtual reality has been in the medical field. Many University’s now offer virtual reality headsets so that students studying anatomy can inspect organs and other components of the body with the help of 3-dimensional figures shown through virtual reality. But Duke University, uses it differently.

Duke Faculty Practice offers a Virtual Reality Treatment Program that is used as therapy to help treat anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders that the Treatment Program is used for includes the fear of heights, elevators, thunderstorms, public speaking and flying. Stated on Duke’s website, VR therapy can benefit increased safety and control, more efficient treatment, less risk to patient confidentiality and more.

Visit Universities from the Comfort of your Home

With virtual reality’s breakthrough in technology, it is clear that new experiences are possible like never before. For example, VR can commonly be found on University websites.

Many colleges across the U.S. offer virtual tours of their campus letting viewers see lecture halls, dorm rooms, and more.

According to Virtual Reality, Real Rewards in Higher Ed (2017), more than 30,000 people have visited Northern Arizona State University through its 360-degree virtual campus tour and more than 4,000 of the individuals who had participated in the virtual tour have made some sort of contact with the University.

In addition, virtual reality tours can help gain prospective student interest, save individuals money, and allows prospective students who are located in a different state or region, tour a campus in the comfort of their own home.

Whether virtual reality is being used online, sitting on your couch, touring the University of your dreams, or used to learn anatomy or travel to ancient pyramids, its benefits and uses are endless. With VR, it is the unique experience of learning new information that makes education fun.  

Needless to say, VR engages students in the classroom unlike any other way before and its abilities are what captivates the learning experience and what helps students remember what they learned.

“Enhancing and extending the learning experience is at the heart of what Virtual Reality can offer students, and is possibly one of the most powerful of all technologies that could help change how we learn forever (ClassVR, 2017).”

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