VR and breathtaking future possibilities for the classroom

VR and possibilities for the classroom
VR and breathtaking future possibilities for the classroom

I have a Qwest VR set at home and it’s a lot of fun – of course you can play games, but there are many other purposes it can be used for. My husband enjoys visiting his home town in Poland from the comfort of the couch. Considering that VR games are still in their infancy, I can only imagine how much more realistic they will get. I don’t usually get motion sick, but after only one minute of the ISS simulator I had to take off the headset because I was getting dizzy.

If you are a French teacher, you almost certainly are aware that Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was severely damaged in a fire that took place in April 2019. The roof and spire were destroyed and there was concern for the structure itself. Luckily, the cathedral was still standing after the fire was put out and Macron has vowed to complete the rebuilding in time for the 2024 summer Olympics, which will be posted in Paris. The cathedral is still closed, but in the meantime, a company is offering VR tours of the cathedral.

The Notre-Dame VR experience

The VR experience is called “Notre Dame Eternelle” and you can visit it at both the plaza in front of the cathedral or at La Défense. My husband and I went to try it out this morning and we were amazed. Even having done VR before, it was an immersive experience that had both of us saying WOW at the end. The entire experience takes place in a large open room and you walk through the cathedral guided by a VR guide. Each visitor wears a VR headset and carries a light computer system in a backpack.

As you look through the VR headset, you will see both the computer generated scenery, but also a generic body whenever someone is near you. The people in your group will have their names hovering above their heads, while those outside of your group will just be a generic computerized body. This keeps you from running into others as you navigate the experience. It can be a little bit disorienting at first, but you quickly get used to it. If you ever get close to a wall or other object, a red warning grid will pop up.

The experience takes you through the history of the building of the cathedral. You start with a flashback to April 2019, with the cathedral in flames. You are standing in front of the building with others, watching in horror as the building burns. Your guide then invites you to come visit the cathedral as it is being built. The graphics are great, and the VR world feels quite real. They aren’t entirely photorealistic, which is a good thing – I believe that if the graphics were completely real-looking, it would increase the amount of dizziness that some people get when doing VR.

At some times, you step on a platform that lifts you up to higher levels of the building. Of course you are still standing in the same big room with a flat floor, but it feels like you are moving! There are several times when you have to step through a wall or a low passage way and while you could easily just walk through the walls, everyone ducks instinctually.

The VR tour takes you through many parts of the cathedral, showing how it was built and which things were added. You will see the main building, but also get a close-up view of the stained glass as it is installed, the roof, and the bell tower. At the end of the experience, you will see current work that is being done to rebuild the cathedral.

The tour is available in several languages, so if your French isn’t up to the experience you aren’t out of luck! You can purchase a ticket that includes the Cité de l’Histoire, which is also fun to visit – especially the interactive, immersive tour. It’s a mixture of life-size dioramas and audio with live characters that interact with you. It is realistic enough that it is scary to walk across some of the planks in the higher areas of the cathedral – you’ll need to remind yourself that it’s just a flat floor and you won’t fall!

The future of learning? VR could be a game-changer

The experience was interesting and showed great promise for future classroom use. It brought history alive and allowed us to see and experience something that would otherwise not be possible. It made me think of other uses that might be a way to get students involved and excited about their learning.

Imagine if your students could experience historical events in both the place and time that they happened – the signing of a treaty, an important battle or speech, the moon landing. It would take the infrastructure of the computers and headsets, but if a school had access to a class set, teachers could arrange for their students to use them in the gym or another open space.

The next step would be for companies to make the software to run the different VR simulations. I believe that it is only a matter of time before textbook companies start to look into this. It would be rather labor intensive at first, but once the script is written and the graphics are made, the simulation could sell the software to schools as part of textbook packages, or standalone lessons. It’s exciting to picture my students being able to visit Versailles, to experience the French Revolution, or to see the D-Day invasion and visit the cemetery afterwards – all without leaving their home campus!

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