If you give a kid an oculus rift

In my Imaging class this semester, I initially selected to research how VR moves us beyond fictional experiences. More specifically, I was interested in how VR could influence storytelling as its technology evolves and becomes more accessible. Media, I learned, has already changed our perspective of fiction. Children no longer have to imagine what Middle Earth or Hogwarts looks like – the visuals have been designed. But what would it be like if we were truly immersed in those fantastical worlds? Does VR have the potential enhance our imagination or set new limitations?

I began by attempting to build VR Hogwarts. I wanted to draw from a story I had visited as a kid, before the movies, theme parks, and video games gave us the “definitive” interpretation. How did I imagine the Quidditch pitch when I first read Harry Potter? Field, stands, mountains, balls. But I wasn’t sure if I’d added the mountains because I knew the crew filmed in Scotland. I also began to think, “What am I learning from this? I’m creating an immersive experience, but is it providing me with a better understanding of the original series?”

I had spent a good part of this initial exploration trying to re-imagine a fictional fantasy world from my eight-year-old POV. So, what would happen if an actual eight-year-old was given the chance to create their own version of Hogwarts? Would they gain more (spacial awareness, creative energy, appreciation for different perspectives) than I can at 22? My topic grew another head: Can VR be used as a tool in early education? Particularly when kids are placed in the roles of storytellers and world-creators.

I redirected my research. According to VR journalist, Susanna Crause, children who use and design for VR are trained to think in 3D. VR’s a “great playground for creativity,” she explains, and gives kids an opportunity to flex their imagination and push boundaries. Most interestingly to me, Crause asserts that younger children are especially flexible to VR because they haven’t yet accepted that the world they’ve been dropped into is fake. Eight-year-old Jessye would’ve loved being dropped into Hogwarts before magic became unbelievable.

Several studies have been done to prove that creating fictional worlds in VR 1) improves kids’ spacial thinking, 2) teaches that there are multiple perspectives to every story, and 3) gives them an early idea of what it means to think “Big Picture”. Singaporean startup, iMMERSiVELY, conducted a VR workshop for 6-10 year olds, where the kids were tasked with creating their own fantasy worlds. First, they wrote out a narrative describing their setting, then built that setting in a VR platform. Alison Foo, who led the activity, noted that, “It’s not about memorizing but rather experiences.”

It’s exciting to think that VR can be both fun and educational, can allow kids to experience the fantastical while also learning valuable skills. Questions I’ll continue to explore: How can imaginative VR construction be incorporated into everyday school curriculum? Should there be some guidelines that kids follow when developing these projects?