A VR VISIT TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

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The time had come, as it occasionally does, for a team outing. And what better way, we thought, to spend a Friday lunch-hour than attending Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds exhibit at Somerset House?

Billed as a ‘new virtual reality artwork’, this was a particularly exciting prospect to the team, as both virtual reality (VR – an interactive, fully computer-generated simulation) and augmented reality (AR – superimposing images onto the real world) are hot topics of conversation within the eLearning world. We at King’s Online are always keen to explore innovative ways to bring online learning to life – so off, as they say, we went.

The central conceit behind Thresholds is that, before entering the exhibit space, visitors are equipped with an array of wearable devices: headset, earphones, backpack. Donning this futuristic attire, we were guided into the exhibition area, whereupon the virtual reality scene flickered astonishingly into view.

The white, box-like installation transforms before one’s eyes into a digitally reconstructed room, based exactly on scientist William Henry Fox Talbot’s photography exhibition in 1839. An opulent Victorian museum space now surrounds you, with high, vaulted ceilings, dark oak cabinets, and towering windows. Sounds from the era are piped into your headphones – including the echoes of Chartist protesters, rioting in the Birmingham streets ‘below’ – and Talbot’s exhibition cases ‘contain’ various priceless photographs and other fascinating items which would not typically be available to the general public. If one hovers one’s hand above these exhibits, one can bring them closer, offering a more detailed look.

As we began to move about in the room, smaller details started to emerge, such as a mouse scurrying across the floor under our feet, a spider crawling across a painting, moths flying about in the lights above. Moving across to the windows to take a peek ‘outside’, you see a Victorian street scene: a dark, grubby road, mist swirling, a soldier marching up and down.

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As a team, we could immediately see the possibilities that virtual reality might offer the realm of online learning. Putting aside, for a moment, the cost implications of producing VR and AR to the level that Mat Collishaw has achieved; or the logistical complications of the kit itself, the opportunities for, example, healthcare education are enormous: Imagine being able to teach anatomy and neuroscience by immersing students in an experience where they can ‘see’ organs pumping and blood flowing; neurons and synapses working away.

All sorts of different disciplines could, we believe, apply VR techniques to their educational offerings, making use of simulation-based learning to improve learner engagement and real-world relevance. Mat Collishaw’s exhibit has definitely whetted our collective appetite, and VR and AR are technologies which King’s Online will certainly be exploring further over the coming months and years.

  • Photos and text by Lindsey Fulker, May 2017

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