Until recently, my knowledge of virtual reality didn’t extend far beyond blue and red cubes flying at my face as I frantically—and in my mind, epically—slashed each block away to the rhythm of the music with two flaming swords. This game, Beat Saber, has topped the charts since its release in 2018. For VR enthusiasts and amateurs, Beat Saber boasts a simple yet entertaining introduction to the emerging technology.

Taking a step further into VR, the second game I ever played was a free download to interact with other real people online: Rec Room. Though my desired gaming experience was hindered by the number of screaming six-year-olds in public spawning* rooms, it was all the little things that left me astounded by VR’s capabilities, like the “slap” sound that came with high-fiving a friend who lives thousands of miles away or maintaining a conversation while playing table tennis. I probably looked like an idiot swinging my arms at nothing and talking to a wall, but I didn’t care because mundane everyday life was suddenly intriguing.

Seeing VR’s potential past flying blocks and ping pong balls, DSI faculty and instructors have harnessed the technology to teach in the classroom, and U-M students can access headsets in both the Duderstadt Center and the DSI lounge. But what can VR teach that a lecture or book can’t?

According to many in the VR industry, VR has a distinctive capacity for evoking empathy. Many VR documentaries attempt to communicate new perspectives as the technology lends itself to recreating experiences. Yvette Granata, Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media and the Digital Studies Institute, wrote and directed “I Took a Lethal Dose of Herbs”—a simulation that explores a woman responding to an unwanted pregnancy. Students taking Granata’s section of “Intro to Virtual Reality” experienced “I Took a Lethal Dose of Herbs.” One student, Max Newman (FTVM major) described the simulation to be “surreal and dark,” going on to explain the effectiveness of portraying this subjectivity in a VR format. Students also had the opportunity to create their own 360 environments using the programming software Unity. Max’s project focused on flora and fauna in which deer were eating plastic bags that looked similar to grass and birds were eating bottle caps instead of seeds. Portraying an exaggerated future in which we continue to carelessly pollute, the brief simulation was successful in communicating its environmental concerns.

One advocate of using VR to advance education is Sara Blair. Through teaching the cross-listed English and DSI course, “The Novel and Virtual Realities,” Blair, who is also Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, has come to value the “tension or play between the invitation to give ourselves over to whatever authenticity is, [whether] we’re in another space, we’ve time traveled, or we’re trying to inhabit a different body.” Exploring these capacities of VR and their effects, Blair’s students have worked creatively to incorporate their experiences or research into VR storyboards that depict scenes like a 3D film. Perspectives range from that of a teenage girl navigating her world through mental health struggles to a user exploring the themes of Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.

This immersive VR capability is used in other classes as well, even if it isn’t the main focus. In DIGITAL 258, DSI faculty and DISCO Postdoctoral Fellow Jeff Nagy taught a subtopic about how VR can influence people’s emotions. One Digital Studies minor, Naomi Zheng, described a VR documentary titled Traveling While Black to be “a creative journey because it was my first time navigating VR, and it felt so real when I was in a camp where I could see how my fellow members would tell me to hide or not to go out because of supervision.”

Beyond evoking empathy, U-M uses VR in other units, like the medical school. Instead of jumping to a stressful high-risk scenario, students can operate on a virtual patient, providing a space that allows mistakes but also simulates a close approximation to reality. VR has its uses in other STEM areas too; imagine walking around a 3D shape rotating in space versus trying to conceptualize it on a sheet of paper with XYZ axes. Especially for visual learners, having an environment to interact with can be extremely helpful.

That being said, even with these breakthroughs, using VR in the classroom poses many challenges. In addition to technical difficulties, a classroom full of students equipped with headsets isn’t the most productive environment when trying to teach students who can’t even see you. It’s also debatable how “immersive” a simulation can be without privacy, knowing that your reactions are being watched by other classmates. I know that in my own experience, I immediately feel embarrassed if someone walks in on me playing with VR, even though it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps with time, educators will find solutions to work around these issues and enhance the effectiveness of VR in the classroom.

There are also ethical concerns to be wary of. Blair questions, “What does it mean that VR can virtually drop us in a place or in a time like a refugee camp or a warzone? It can do that, should we let it do that?” There isn’t a clear line for the extent of VR’s capabilities. While watching the Amazon Prime TV series Upload, I once saw an episode where cows wore VR headsets which led to a higher milk production. I thought this was absurd, but as it turns out, cows are already donning headsets on a farm in Turkey. These applications of VR could grow out of control if we don’t continue to ask what’s ethical or necessary. It is also not the most accessible technology due to its cost and its tendency to make users dizzy within the first couple of minutes.

Still, the benefits of VR produce a strong argument for the continued use, improvement, and expansion of VR in education. Incorporating the technology into the classroom essentially expands the educational setting beyond it. It’ll be intriguing for both current and future students to track the evolution of VR in education and question how much we can, or should, bring the virtual into real-life applications.

*The spawn room is a common term for the first place that online players appear on a video game map.