Virtual reality

Your connection between real and virtual world

Using Meta's co-financing, 10 colleges have turned their campuses into "metaverses"

Budi posrednik između stvarnog i virtualnog – podijeli članak:

Walking through an enlarged human cell. The study of stars from the surface of the moon. Adding frisbees with a colleague who lives 700 km from campus.

For many students, these scenarios are just fantasies. But the goal of the new VR experiment is to realize just such scenarios. Ten colleges in the U.S. have signed up to create their own digital versions that will look 3D and be very immersive when accessed by students using VR headsets. Entrepreneurs who deal with VR technology call these virtual simulations of the faculty “metaverses”

The technology behind the metaversity comes from Engage, an Irish company that has processed experiences like titanic travel, the Apollo 11 mission, and the bombing of Berlin during World War II in VR. The user interface design comes from VictoryXR, which sells VR technologies intended for education.

Money for the project, as well as donated VR hedsets for students of participating faculties, was provided by Meta.

The most interesting part of the project is the “digital twins of the campus” which are specifically made for each faculty participating in the project. The idea is that students can sign up online and create avatars, by which they can communicate with each other and navigate replicas of their colleges. This is reminiscent of the now defunct digital campuses that colleges set up 15 years ago using Second Life, but the leaders of this new project say it will be much better executed.

The project will also bring educational virtual tools to teaching that will further improve the quality of lectures. VR will allow lecturers and students to manipulate 3D objects, perform scientific experiments or visit historically important places. Whether at first this way VR classes sound strange or great, it depends on your view of the project. But it will certainly become more realistic for students over time and will be able to get better into it, according to new research from Stanford University.

But creating metaversities raises questions about price, affordability, and privacy. One of the most important questions is: Why create something like this at all?

“The real value of augmented reality lies in the things you can do in it that are inaccessible in any other way,” says Jeffrey Pomerantz, associate professor at Simmons University and co-founder of Proximal LLC, an educational VR design and development company. Pomerantz is not involved in the metaverse project.

What is the educational value of a VR replica of a campus? The answer may be different for each user involved. South Dakota State University colleges believe the metaversity will help reach and attract remote students from rural areas. Southwestern Oregon Community College, in turn, believes that their metaversity will attract interested people and encourage them to enroll in higher degrees of education.

And as for Meta?

“We want to create an ecosystem for learning in metaverse,” says Monica Arés, head of Meta’s Immersive Learning section. “We want to make sure that we are not only preparing future workers to interact with technologies like this, but we are also preparing them to create them.”

Arés says the rise in the prevalence of VR technologies will shift the current education model, consisting of separate online and live segments, into a single “three-component” model. A model that blends the online, live and simulated segment of teaching into one, without the restrictions represented by the time, travel and scale on which classes take place.

Partner colleges are aware that Meta’s goals set during the company’s founding are to achieve “metaverse reach billions of people” and “create hundreds of billions of dollars worth of digital commerce.” Meta recently announced that it is opening its own store where potential users of Meta’s hedsets will be able to come try out and buy their VR hedsets.

“In terms of work, they understand that long-term exponential growth will come from teenagers and people in their early twenties,” says Greg Heiberger, associate dean at South Dakota Stat University College. “The more exposure, training and positive experiences students, children and educational staff have, the more will be a plus for Meta in terms of their business model.

But Heiberger believes Meta’s investments in the Immersive Learning project show that the company also has an interest in bringing improvements to education.

“I hope that obstacles in education, such as socioeconomic status and spatial distance, can be avoided using new technologies like VR,” he said. “I would say these are the two principles that are at the top of the priority list: earnings and investing the resources they have gained to make the world a better place.”

Building digital twins

The metaversity project traces its roots to a pilot project that was not created during the pandemic. In 2021, VictoryXR used Qualcomm funds to create morehouse college’s digital campus designed to be a better solution for online classes than Zoom.

The original name was not metaverse. This terminology developed later, when Meta got involved in the project.

Morehouse College’s digital campus

The Morehouse project has garnered the attention of Meta’s top executives, who have shown interest in investing money in the project for the purpose of creating more digital campuses, says Steve Grubbs, director and co-founder of VictoryXR. David Whelan, founder and CEO of Engage, said Meta already knew about Engage, who made VR populanra experiences among people who own Meta’s hassets.

Seeking to get involved in the project historically black colleges and Hispanic institutions, VictoryXR identified most partner colleges as talk of the project spread and how different institutions contacted the company, interested in getting involved in the project, Grubbs says.

That’s how Southwestern Oregon Community College made the partner list. VR consultant Karen Alexander, who works for the college, heard Grubbs talk about the project on a podcast and approached him and asked for her faculty to get involved in the project. Meanwhile, Heiberger of South Dakota State overheard Grubbs describing the project in his webinar. Heiberger sought the opinion of Director Morehouse, who recommended him cooperate with VictoryXR.

Once colleges were identified, VictoryXR acquired maps,, and videos of each institution so they could better perform each college’s digital twins. In a video showing Southwestern Oregon Community College’s digital campus , we can see laboratories, lecture halls, and the campus’s exterior. In a video showing digital Morehouse , we see iconic red buildings, a concert hall and a statue on campus.

Southwestern Oregon Community College Digital Campus

Heiberger says he looks forward to seeing a digital version of his college’s iconic bell tower. “The most important thing for us is to build a campus that makes you feel like you’re at a real South Dakota State College,” he says. “To provide people with culture, feeling, nostalgia; all the things that come with student life.”

Learning in VR

Actively following classes as you try to control your avatar in a virtual classroom at the beginning is a little weird. But a new study from Stanford suggests that this feeling disappears with time.

The study followed more than 80 students who went through 10 weeks of training using the Engage platform and subsequently participated in group discussions via avatar. They used Quest 2 as a hedset. More than half of the students in the group have never experienced virtual reality before.

The results show that students’ experiences, identification with their avatars, a sense of connection with their classmates, and a perception of the VR environment as realistic improved during those 10 weeks of study.

This suggests that people are likely to become more acceptable to using shared virtual space the more they use it, writes the study’s author: “It’s possible that once participants adapt to the medium and are more comfortable with the new technology to use, they’ll be able to take advantage of the benefits vr and KVOs (collaborative virtual environments) provide and feel presence and connection.”

This hypothesis is encouraging for institutions participating in the metaverse experiment. South Dakota State plans to use its new headsets for two new science degree programs with VR components in the fall; one of them completely online, for which students do not have to live near campus
(a VR hedset will be sent to them in the mail for judgment). Oregon Community College plans to use VR technology in programs on forestry, communications, and microeconomics.

As an advocate of virtual reality, Pomerantz believes that VR is “potentially extremely powerful educational technology,” especially for performing activities that are too expensive or dangerous. But he also says it’s not clear so far what one such metaverse campus adds new to education. Research published in 2018 on virtual reality in colleges suggests the interest of professors and students in using this technology to facilitate the achievement of educational goals, not just for their own purposes.

“The digital campus is cool and God knows I love a good reconstruction, but I’m not sure the real value lies in that right now,” Says Pomerantz. “There’s no reason in VR to “walk” to the classroom where classes are held.”

But Heiberger’s experience in working on student relationships gives him a different perspective. He believes that the campus environment is very important in live higher education and could also be very important for online higher education.

When asked if he thought the campus digital twins were a fun or serious feature of VR college his answer was: Both!

“When we look at physical campuses, a sense of belonging and community is very important with student success, mental health, creating connections, getting practices and generally enjoying,” he says. “It can’t exist without an academic. Otherwise it’s a simple resort; it’s a great place to hang out with other people who have money and time to spend.”

Costs and problems

“Free” is a very catchy word when it comes to educational technology. Institutions participating in the metaversity project get a lot of it for free. They don’t have to pay to build digital campuses and in addition, they also get about 50 Meta Quest 2 VR headsets for free, which sell at $299 (2160 kn).

This kind of offer can make a big difference for colleges that are limited by budget. For example, South Dakota State’s Heiberger has been interested in VR technology for years, but hardware and software costs have so far made it all inaccessible. The faculty’s leadership had already bought 15 VR hedsets before they got involved in the project, so Meta’s 50-hedset offering “opened up a number of new opportunities for us,” Heiberger says. “This really pushed us far ahead.”

But that doesn’t mean colleges won’t have to pay anything for their metaverses, but will have to pay for a license for software that will run metaverses. The cost per student using the metaversion will be comparable to the cost of subscribing to a digital textbook, Grubbs says. The current idea is that this figure will only be charged for students who will use metaverses to attend classes and learn, while access to the digital campus using avatars will be free for everyone.

For South Dakota State, access to metaversity will cost less than $100 per student using VR, as Heiberger says. He says the price is similar to what a college would have to pay for any good VR app. The college plans to cover these costs with externally collected money rather than include them in tuition costs paid by students.

But this type of expense, due to its repetitiveness, could eventually become a problem for colleges that don’t find a way to get them into their normal operating budget, Pomerantz says. “In many cases, campuses treat these new technologies as special projects,” he explained. “The key to the durability of such special projects in higher education is that they must become operational and embedded in study programs.”

Metaversion program leaders are excited about the fact that the program will allow students to keep VR devices with them and use them wherever and whenever they want. But it may not be the best idea to wear hedsets absolutely everywhere, Pomerantz warns. “If you want to create pervasive VR, you have to have a place on campus where students can use VR safely, without the risk of colliding with each other or crashing a computer off a desk or anything like that. I’ve heard a variety of stories; “The monitors are overturned from the table and broken and so on,” he said. “As a rule, you don’t want the VR user to walk a lot in circles.”

And what about students who don’t have VR headsets or those who don’t want to use them? Those students will still be able to access the online campus through internet search engines, Grubbs says, though such an experience won’t be as immersive. “The browser access option is good, the VR option is great,” he explains.

User privacy is currently a pressing topic in the industry, especially when it comes to tools used in schools and colleges. In theory, VR tools can collect a lot of user data, Pomerantz says, sharing with us the key question: “How much do you trust your salesperson?”

He also points out that companies keep most of the data they collect hidden and protected. As an exception, Pomerantz states that he wishes there was an opportunity for certain collected data to be shared with professors who could thus see how students progress in learning and reaching their educational goals.

Student safety is important to Engage, Whelan says, noting that the company adheres to the General Data Protection Regulations mandated by the European Union. VictoryXR doesn’t collect data through its platform, Grubbs says, adding that students will have by changing settings have control over the volume of data that can be collected through the Quest 2 hedset.

Heiberger confirms that metaversity raises concerns about privacy and security. But he makes an interesting argument. He believes that higher education should not simply protect students when it comes to technology, but should also teach students how to protect themselves and their communities. They should also be helped to build information literacy, which they will need in their further lives anyway, after graduating.

So, there may be benefits to allowing students to experiment with VR technology.

“I think our job is to enable students to explore this in a safe way,” Heiberger says. “To help them build their own decision-making frameworks, to decide what risks they are willing to accept, to give up some of their freedom to gain certain benefits.”

Meta’s master plan

Arés, head of Meta’s Immersive Learning section, is a former professor. She recalls worries about whether her lessons will manage to hold students’ attention. “I would spend countless hours trying to make visually rich lessons,” says Arés. “When I first put the hedset on my head, I knew that was exactly the medium I had always been looking for.”

She believes that other lecturers, once they have the opportunity to teach using virtual reality, will feel the same way. “My favorite thing is to push other lecturers into it. Everyone always has a thousand ideas of what can be done with VR,” she says. “This system is incredibly suitable for learning. It allows us to solve certain problems that have not been possible until now.

One of these problems of traditional online learning could be the inability to stimulate curiosity and connectivity of students, which the pandemic confirmed to us, Arés says. The idea of metaversity attracted Meta because of the ability to make distance learning more immersive and active, and thus more interesting and attractive. Support from Meta’s Lmmersive Learnings is part of a $150 million investment in projects that will build skills and create content related to the virtual environment. Meta refused to share how much of that investment would go into the metaversity project. Arés says Meta is not focused on generating revenue; instead “the main goal is to increase accessibility to education and change the way we learn.”