VR @ SXSWedu: The BAD News about VR in Education

At the recent SXSWedu conference, over 6,000 international attendees, exhibitors, thought leaders, and other innovators in the education space gathered in Austin to get a glimpse of the future of innovation in schooling. In last month’s article, VR @ SXSWedu: The Good News about VR in Education, I described how “virtual reality made its presence known at SXSWedu with a collective shout. Virtual reality was virtually—everywhere. You could see its inescapable footprint in the concurrent sessions, the workshops, and in the hands-on playgrounds.” At the end of that article I pledged to flip the story on its head, promising to spill the other part of the story: “the dirty, grimy, unspoken part.” Here we go.

From a marketer’s perspective, SXSWedu was a dream-come-true conference for promoting the potential of virtual reality in the education space. But still, as I raced from the conference, trying to escape Obama’s impending arrival to Austin, I left with an uneasy feeling. It’s that queasy uneven feeling you get when bandwagon carelessly thumps into powerful innovation. No—virtual reality’s coronation pathway to the palace of ed-market success is not paved with gold bricks—at least not just yet. Here’s a reasoned look at why:

  • Nearly all of the VR sims I viewed struggled with granular, lower-resolution imagery; resolution far less sharp than students demand.
  • Most of the VR sims I viewed demonstrated noticeable latency; and latency issues can lead to the distasteful “virtual reality sickness” phenomenon.
  • I witnessed an over-dependence on spherical photography for content, or at least ‘defined’ as VR content.
  • Nearly all of the VR sims I viewed were passive observational experiences (viewing), and not particularly interactive.
  • In every single session, the presenter(s) grumbled about the need for more educational content. Clearly, there is not enough educational content available for critical mass adoption in schools and universities. Period.
  • Not a single presenter I interviewed had a proper answer to address the vision issues associated with binocular viewing of stereo virtual reality experiences. One presenter naively suggested that the solution depended solely on improved VR content. (For my perspective on this concern, please reference my recent article, the Janus Incidence.)
  • Nearly all VR presenters haled from university-level programs or the corporate world, not K-12.

In the end, I somehow left SXSWedu with that uneasy “Sham Wow” feeling. (Sham Wow was an ill-famed infomercial in the United States, a hyped-up advertisement that featured Vinnie, the sales hawker promoting a ‘miracle’ cleaning towel. Speaking rapidly and rhythmically, with his rich Bronx accent and gel-spiked hair, Vinnie whittled away every excuse you could muster against buying his amazing product. Then the obligatory customer testimonials followed. But the viewer was always left wondering if s/he was being ‘played.’)

At SXSWedu I was confirmed in the notion that VR, at least as it is playing out in the education marketplace, was having its own Sham Wow moment. (Watch the commercial, but substitute the phrase “VR” every time you hear the phrase “Sham Wow” for that surreal experience.) As a result, I left the halls of the Austin Convention Center, writhing in palpable uncertainty, the kind that occurs when hype collides with potential; when exposure to exciting new technology meets with equal parts shudder and disdain. Sham Wow. –Len Scrogan