Inspiring learning and creativity with VR

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.
- John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction To The Philosophy of Education, 1916.

The pioneering educator and philosopher John Dewey taught during a time when rote memorization was the norm. And since then, many advances to aid learning, such as books, libraries, search engines, and web pages, have enabled kids to access, assimilate and recall information. However, to thrive in the 21st century, well-prepared students need to do much more than regurgitate facts. Many educators, corporations, and governments agree that collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity are essential skills to master.

The skills professionals need to be successful in today’s economies require a new approach to teaching. Educators and theorists have found that people — young and old — learn best through “experiential learning,” an approach to pedagogy that engages learners by bringing facts and figures to life. Which do you remember more: the lessons in the classroom or the field trips you took? Most people say that seeing a tiger at the zoo is much more powerful and memorable than reading about one in a book.

Unfortunately, augmenting traditional learning with a rich curriculum of experiential learning, through field trips, science labs, robotics class etc, is usually expensive, impractical, or both. However, virtual reality has the potential to overcome those challenges. When a single device can be your school bus, your access to museums, your chemistry set, and your programmable robot, it helps bring experiential learning to all learners regardless of geography or income level.

A Night Cafe by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) recreated in VR by Borrowed Light Studios (2017)

VR has the potential to provide an entirely new perspective on people, places, and things. Imagine a student venturing inside a great work of art like A Night Cafe. Experiencing Van Gogh’s art becomes that much more memorable and students gain an entirely different viewpoint on what he created.

In this article, I want to encourage our developer community to push the envelope of innovation for VR, particularly in inspiring learning and creativity. It is a great opportunity to shape the direction of a nascent market.

What makes VR unique?

There are certain inherent properties of virtual reality that enable a distinctive user experience.

  • Immersion: when the experience is so compelling you forget other things and lose track of time.
  • Presence: when your mind and body are tricked into believing you have entered the virtual environment and respond as if you are there (even if your brain knows you are not).
  • Empathy: when you create a deeper emotional connection than what one can have by simply reading or hearing.
  • Agency: when you can make decisions that directly affect the outcome of the experience.

Educators, parents and others have been concerned that VR is an isolating experience, since kids can potentially be glued to the VR device for long periods of time. However, they have observed a somewhat contrary phenomenon: kids are so excited about what they are seeing that they are exchanging observations and opinions with each other, giving rise to the idea of social VR. At schools, teachers report that after traveling to a far-off land via the Expeditions app, kids want to discuss what they saw with the class. I recommend developers focus on creating compelling experiences that motivate kids to share what they are seeing and learning with parents, teachers and friends.

Google Expeditions for Google Cardboard

What should you build?

The most important thing to ask yourself when evaluating your idea — is it truly better in VR? The best experiences won’t just be other forms of media, reimagined in VR. Or through putting a light VR layer on top of a boring educational app. Instead, they will be built from the ground up in a way that really understands the strengths and weaknesses of the technology.

Virtual reality is justified when the real-world experience is too expensive, too dangerous, impossible, or counterproductive.
- Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Traveling to the bottom of the deepest ocean or the top of the highest mountain is too impractical for almost everyone. But it is exactly these impossible adventures that peak kids’ curiosity. A report from Touchstone Research said 64% of kids said they would use VR to visit another country, 58% would travel back in time, and 56% would fly like a bird.

Google Expeditions for Google Cardboard

It’s important to remember that kids’ interests don’t change with technology. Kids are always going to be playful and curious. They like to play, they want to explore, they try to create. Build great experiences that help them do that.

Suggestions for developing an inspiring VR app for kids

1. Focus on immersion

Immersion is at the core of a truly great VR experience. When designing your app experience, create a place where kids feel like they’re part of the story. Remove any distractions and engage all the senses.

The Mandarin Lesson by Daydream Labs

The Mandarin Lesson is an example of how VR can create an immersive experience in an educational exercise that often involves immersion: learning a new language. By turning on subtitles to help build a cohesive picture of the conversation, students are able to immerse themselves in the learning process.

Tip: Design with the appropriate lighting, shadows, and textures to help create the illusion of depth.

2. Give kids control

Kids want an interactive experience where they can directly impact their experience. Like the most popular gaming experiences, interactive elements encourage engagement and skill acquisition.

Bowling by Daydream Labs
Tip: Create a non-linear narrative where kids’ choices affect the direction of the story.

3. Inject playfulness everywhere

Kids are driven by curiosity and a sense of play. Adding playful elements to your app deepens engagement, whether it is a core element of the experience or simply making the UI fun instead of functional.

Kids want to throw a ball rather than click a button. They want to wave a magic wand rather than point a laser. They want to have fun. So design for interactions that are more playful than simply clicking a button.
- San Shepherd, Co-Founder of Escapist Games
Tip: Work with playful visual and sound effects, and create unexpected interactions.

4. Keep your audience in mind

Re-evaluate all the interactions and elements in your app from a kid’s perspective. For example, onboarding and tutorials that work for adults might not engage kids’ smaller attention spans, so keep them short and think about using animations. Give verbal or visual hints if something isn’t obvious. Break complex concepts into into smaller skills and help users build mastery through repetition early on.

Tip: Make objects and characters proportionate to the target user’s size and at their eye level.

5. Foster collaboration

Collaboration allows kids to communicate more effectively, which supports learning and helps strengthen relationships. This can either be done inside the virtual world together, or by merging the experience between the virtual and physical worlds.

Into the Labyrinth by Mattel

Into the Labyrinth by Mattel is an example of a cooperative VR game. One player is lost inside a VR labyrinth and has to work together with a teammate outside VR. The player outside VR has physical maps and guidebooks filled with symbols and clues, but can’t see the gameplay, requiring them to work together to win the game.

Tip: Give students in and out of the experience a shared objective but asymmetric information, which forces them to collaborate in order to progress.

Define the future of learning

Imagine every kid in the world having the chance to visit the moon, travelling to Mount Everest, exploring inside the human body, or seeing the world from the perspective of an ant. Virtual reality has the ingredients to create enriching learning experiences that engage and advance next generation’s imagination and intellect.

The technology is still evolving, and much experimentation will happen and be needed in the coming years. At Google Play, we look forward to collaborating with you to make these efforts successful. Get in touch if you’re working on a VR experience related to learning.


What do you think?

Do you have questions or thoughts on inspiring learning with AR and VR? Continue the discussion in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.


Note: Google Cardboard should be used with adult supervision. Google Expeditions is for ages 7 and up. Daydream View is for ages 13 and up.