Immersive learning lab gives students a reality check

24 October 2017

Arts and Social Sciences students experience virtual and augmented realities in Australia's largest Immersive Learning Laboratory.
Arts and Social Sciences students experience virtual and augmented realities in Australia's largest Immersive Learning Laboratory.

With the recent launch of the University’s Immersive Learning Laboratory, Arts and Social Sciences students can experience virtual and augmented realities for the first time.

With headsets strapped on and motion controllers firmly in hand, the students were plugged in and performing amazing feats. The lab was abuzz with chatter as some stood while many waved their hands in similarly intricate, awkward patterns: grasping at objects that simply didn’t exist in this reality.

As the screens relayed the virtual experiences occurring within the visors—bullets being dodged; trains being leapt from; Facebook photos flicked through casually in outer space—one could be forgiven for thinking a high-end computer design class was in progress.

But in fact, these extraordinary episodes were being lived out during the recently revamped Mobile Media and Games unit—an Arts elective that now incorporates practical experiences with virtual reality, providing many Arts and Social Sciences students with access to the technology for the first time.

An investigation into the world of emerging and disruptive technologies, the unit takes postgraduate Digital Cultures students out of the familiar classroom settings of the Brennan MacCallum building and into the University’s state-of-the-art Immersive Learning Laboratory.

Home to 26 Oculus Rift units—devices that immerse users in interactive environments by tracking head movements and providing stereoscopic 3D imagery—the lab currently houses the largest collection of the devices in any Australian educational institution.

Course coordinator Dr Marcus Carter says the decision to dedicate two weeks of class time to the virtual experiences is part of a “show rather than tell” teaching approach aimed at providing students with a greater understanding of the technology based on their own personal experiences.

The University's Immersive Learning Laboratory.
The University's Immersive Learning Laboratory.

“The vast majority of these students have never used virtual reality. I think anyone graduating from a degree like the Master of Digital Communications and Cultures should have experienced VR and should be able to talk critically about VR,” said Dr Carter.

Over the course of the semester, students study the history and theory behind emergent technologies, contextualising disruptive gadgets like smartphones, gaming consoles and Oculus Rifts.

Master of Digital Communication and Culture student Anna-Grace Millward believes her time in the lab has “sparked new ideas” about how the technology can be applied across different platforms.

“It’s limitless. From design, to human connection to storytelling and game play. We can use VR to send people into new worlds and to erode boundaries between time and space. These affordances can revolutionise education, the medical world, even the way people interact with their favourite celebrity.”

“Once mobile phones and iPads adopt some of these VR features, VR will become more about connection and shared space, not just an escape into another world.”

During their time in the lab, students engaged with several different augmented and virtual applications designed especially for the Oculus Rift: Bullet Train (an action simulation set inside a train station); Spaces (an extension of Facebook where friends can meet up in a virtual location); and Tilt Brush (Google’s Art application that allows users to design and create in immersive 3D).

Action games and Facebook might seem at odds with a typical learning environment but Dr Carter says the apps were chosen so students could experience the breadth of potential of virtual reality.

The University's Immersive Learning Laboratory.
The University's Immersive Learning Laboratory.

“There’s a real physical reaction to VR. With Bullet Train, their attention is drawn to the way VR can trick the user’s body into feeling emotions other mediums can’t. The students come away from that experience excited, sweaty.”

After each session, the students work together in small groups on ‘debrief sheets’, analysing and comparing experiences. Through the combination of theory, group discussion and practical application students develop a nuanced understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the technology—“what works and what doesn’t work”, according to Dr Carter.

“Students can speak critically about virtual reality. I wanted them to try Facebook Spaces to interrogate the lack of sociality in most VR. What level of social presence and experience can you actually have in VR? They recognise there’s a real opportunity here but it’s not The Matrix. It has its limitations.”

Architecture student Travis Shaw-Carter enrolled in the Arts and Social Sciences unit to gain such critical perspectives.

“It’s taken my knowledge of VR to a whole new level. But personally, I enjoyed the augmented reality app more because it removes the ‘deep interactivity’ from the equation. The level and depth of interactivity that virtual reality can accomplish … it’s great but it isn’t quite there yet. With a few more years, they’ll be able to fine-tune the technology.”

The majority of students currently enrolled in Mobile Media and Games are completing the Master of Digital Communications and Cultures. But students like Travis highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the unit and the growing level of interest surrounding the critical study of digital cultures. Enrolments for the unit almost doubled between 2016 and 2017, before the Learning Hub experiences were announced. Dr Carter expects this trend to continue.

“As students continue to recognise the impacts that emerging technology will have on our everyday life, we're expecting the Masters of Digital Communications and Cultures to continue to grow.”

If you'd like to learn more about the Master of Digital Communication and Culture, please click here.