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Virtual reality is not yet here -- at least not in higher education. But as technology companies invest billions of dollars in the emerging technology, many colleges and universities are taking a first look at the nascent medium out of concern that they will be left out of shaping it.

This spring, virtual reality took a big step into the mainstream with the launch of two headsets aimed at consumers, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The entertainment industry has pounced on that opportunity, producing immersive games and interactive videos that transport wearers into digital worlds. Virtual reality is also moving into new channels, with 360-degree videos appearing in online news stories and social media feeds.

However, consumers are expecting more from virtual reality than just escapism. According to a report released last month by the research firm Greenlight VR, gaming ranked as the sixth most popular use of virtual reality, behind tourism, movies, live events, home design and even education.

Clifton Dawson, the firm’s CEO, said the study also revealed a demographic divide. While older generations see themselves as consumers of virtual reality “experiences,” millennials, in particular, want to take a more active role.

“What we’re struck by is their incredible appetite for creation, not just consumption,” Dawson said in an interview. “Young people are very interested in creating for this medium despite the very challenging requirements.”

Colleges, Dawson continued, could capitalize on this interest by training students to develop content for virtual reality platforms. And based on the uses colleges see for virtual reality, there is a lot of content that needs to be created.

The technology still has a ways to go, but early adopters of virtual reality imagine a future in which students go on field trips around the world from the comfort of the VR lab, joined by tour guides who connect to the class remotely. Students in online programs, instead of only interacting with their classmates through discussion forums, meet in virtual classrooms, where they can lean over and talk to their neighbors or work together on a problem on a blackboard.

Virtual reality could mean new ways to teach academic disciplines, enthusiasts say. For students in engineering, for example, the technology can allow for inspection of bridges and tunnels before they are built. Medical students can step into a virtual operating theater. Art students can flex their creativity by making pieces that defy the laws of physics. Language students can learn by immersing themselves in a foreign culture. And so on, and so on.

Outside of the classroom, virtual reality could find a home in other offices on campus. Some libraries are considering virtual stacks in the place of real ones, freeing up space for other uses. Admissions officers might be able to lead international students on tours, giving them a chance to see the campus before making the move. And institutional leaders in a university system with campuses scattered across a state could put on a headset and instantly be transported to the same virtual meeting room.

“I can’t think of an area of human life that’s not going to go virtual,” said Andrew M. Koke, a basic skills coordinator at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Koke is leading a group of administrators, faculty members and staffers at IU who are interested in building a virtual reality space -- perhaps starting as simply as a classroom and expanding into a full campus with the complete set of services a student would expect to find at a brick-and-mortar equivalent.

Anthony F. Guest-Scott, an academic coordinator who is part of the group, said the goal of the project would not be to create a virtual copy of the university, but to think of ways that people on campus could use virtual reality to do things they can’t do in person.

“If I’m an instructor and I have a VR classroom, maybe the question I’m asking is not ‘What are we going to read today?’ but ‘Where do I want to be?’” Guest-Scott said in an interview. “Maybe I want to be in the middle of an ocean? Maybe I want to be inside of a beating heart? Maybe I want to hover over a landscape from three million years ago?”

Familiar, If Diminished Challenges

Although the enthusiasm for virtual reality has spiked this year, there are major issues holding back the meaningful use of the technology in higher education.

Cost is one of them. The Vive and the Rift retail for $799 and $599, respectively, and that doesn’t include the powerful and expensive gaming computers needed to power them.

The headsets are also clunky, with a tangle of cords sprouting from them that inhibit movement. Technology that would make the headsets wireless is years away.

In fact, movement itself is an issue. Few of the virtual reality games available so far give players the ability to both look and move around freely while controlling a character from a first-person perspective. Many users have reported experiencing eye strain and “virtual reality sickness,” a type of motion sickness brought on by a disconnect between what the eyes see and inner ear senses.

Seen from a different perspective, however, the challenges facing virtual reality today reflect just how far technology has come. Similarly capable devices cost tens of thousands of dollars only a few years ago. Additionally, advances in display technology means millions of smartphone users carry a VR-capable device in their pockets -- especially when paired with affordable head-mounting contraptions like the $15 Google Cardboard.

Because of those and other lingering challenges, the Horizon Report, an annual publication that predicts when certain technologies will have a significant impact on higher education, says virtual reality is still two to three years away. Adaptive learning, bring-your-own-device policies and learning analytics all have a more imminent “time-to-adoption horizon,” according to the report, which is published by the Educause Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium.

With the developments that have occurred in the virtual development market since the report was released in February, however, that timeline may be too conservative, said Nitocris Perez, an emerging technology specialist at IU.

“Costs will come down, the software might be easier to develop and the technology will continue to advance,” Perez said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s going to be tomorrow, but three years from now things will be radically different.”

A 'Crucial Time' to Get Involved

Although some enterprising researchers and faculty members are finding concrete uses for augmented reality -- technology that adds digital elements on top of a real-world backdrop, like Microsoft’s Hololens, Google Glass or the smartphone phenomenon Pokémon Go -- most colleges have come no farther than IU on virtual reality, if they have come that far at all.

The private sector, meanwhile, is blazing ahead. Facebook in 2014 acquired Oculus for $2 billion. Google in May announced Daydream, an platform for virtual reality on smartphones. Recently, both Huawei, China’s top smartphone producer, and video game developer Valve said they have hundreds of developers working on virtual reality content and products.

Higher education’s interest in virtual reality is in some ways a reaction to those investments. Virtual reality enthusiasts and researchers at colleges and universities -- including members of the team at IU -- said they were worried commercial entities would be free to define the medium should higher education not get involved.

“It seems like a crucial time to jump on it, mold it, direct it and fashion it in a way we think serves our mission,” Guest-Scott said. “The best way to do that is to get in on it early and to figure out what we want to do, to make the mistakes we’re going to make inevitably.”

Researchers who have worked with virtual reality for years are monitoring the interest with concern. For Todd Richmond, director of advanced prototypes and transition at the University of South California Institute for Creative Technologies, the hype is reminiscent of the early days of the dot-com bubble, or when colleges rushed to create mobile apps in response to the growing popularity of smartphones.

“What they ended up creating was crap,” Richmond said in an interview. “Right now there’s a big land rush and a big money rush into VR. … There’s going to be a lot of bad VR, a lot of money wasted.”

The ICT, an independent research unit of USC, dates back to 1999, when the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory teamed up to create a research center that would bring together academia, Hollywood and the gaming industry to work on technology for training and therapy purposes. Its intern alumni network includes people such as Palmer Luckey, the entrepreneur who founded Oculus.

Richmond said companies that claim to have “solved” content development for virtual reality aren’t telling the truth. The technology is “fundamentally different than a computer screen, a TV screen or a phone,” he said, and it will take developers years to figure out how to not just capture viewers’ attention when they can look wherever they want, but also how to create experiences that serve an educational purpose -- and understand why they are effective at doing so.

“There’s where higher education’s role comes in,” Richmond said. “Higher education needs to be a driver of understanding the social, health, ethical, moral and socioeconomic ramifications of the new medium.”

Like massive open online courses or indeed any sort of technology that experiences a surge in hype, virtual reality will eventually face some form of backlash, Richmond said. That doesn’t mean it will go away, he added. The internet didn’t disappear after the dot-com bubble burst, and massive open online courses are still enrolling learners from all over the world.

Despite his own criticism about the current state of the conversation about virtual reality, Richmond had a simple message for colleges and universities: “Just experiment.”

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