Getting Schooled in Virtual Reality

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and a group of teenagers is dutifully trekking to the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Texas to attend a new class. If it’s hard to imagine teenagers wanting to get up early and go to school on the weekend, you’re not alone. What makes this class different is its subject matter: These high-school students and college freshmen are learning how to create Virtual Reality experiences for the Web.

The WebVR Coding Makerspace is supported by two organizations acting together to bring more opportunities to young people in Austin. My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) is a national organization with a goal to ensure that all youth, including boys and young men of color, have opportunities to improve their life outcomes and overcome barriers to success.

Changing Expectations is a local non-profit that runs coding camps for both students and teachers, giving them a way to learn about technology and to work with mentors already active in the Austin tech scene.

Explore the Austin Coding Event by watching this video

These two groups evaluated what skills might be most marketable in the coming years, and decided on Web-based Virtual Reality (VR). What makes WebVR a great tool for learning is that it’s entirely based in the Web browser, so students can access their code on any Internet-connected device, at school or at home.

Diving into 3D spaces has its own unique allure. It lets students use their imaginations to create immersive environments and populate them with a library of available objects. So it’s both fun and educational, exposing participants to coding fundamentals that can help prepare them for a future in technology.

The programs’ mentors put it this way: Think about WebVR education like a meal. The coding skills are the vegetables. But getting to see the VR final product is like the dessert course. So students can’t get to the cheesecake until they first learn HTML.

For teenagers new to technology, A-Frame makes the learning curve a lot less daunting.

A-Frame is a web framework created for building virtual reality experiences that is supported by Mozilla. This makes it easy for anyone with a basic knowledge of HTML — the main language used to code websites — to build and publish three-dimensional VR experiences online.

“The great thing about getting students excited in learning software in the browser is that they can take this anywhere,” said Patrick Curry, a mentor and the co-organizer of VR Austin, a group dedicated to diversifying the VR industry. “They can use it to make VR, A-Frame, normal web software e-commerce, social media — the things their lives are centered on these days.”

For most students, A-Frame’s ease-of-use is a big part of what keeps them coming back on weekends again and again. “When I first started working with A-Frame, I could just make shapes,” said college freshman Seyi Adediwura. “Now we’re making animations, and I think games like chess or pool could be next.”

Another student revealed his plans for a career in Web VR. “I look at this as work experience. I’m hoping for a career in data visualization,” said college freshman Chima Eziryn. “I can see how I could use this to present charts and information to a company.”

The class has given participants a new attitude toward their roles, shifting from passive consumers of video games to active creators of new online experiences. Teacher Gwen Zucker said that the teenagers picked up the ideas so quickly that, in some instances, they were actually guiding her through the A-Frame process.

She also saw a positive impact on the students’ attitude over the course of the weeks and months. “I think giving students the opportunity to learn A-Frame gives them the confidence to see themselves accomplishing something technical, which then opens up a whole new world to them,” Zucker said.

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