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Virtual Reality, Education, and the Stereoscope: A Trip Through Time

by Gabe Baker
New, hipster Google Cardboard, or antique?

Quick Note: This piece of content comes from our free course on virtual reality technology and education available at Edorble Academy. If you'd like to see more, sign up for the course and come along for the ride.

When reading sensational headlines about VR and the predictions about its profound, revolutionary impact on just about any field (including education), one could get the sense that attention to this “new” technology is springing up for the first time. This doesn’t do justice to the history of Virtual Reality technology though, and it doesn’t help us see how this current hype and technology is different than what came before it. Many of the issues surrounding VR tech and education, particularly the more philosophical/ethical ones, have been discussed for quite some time now, and ignoring that history does us no favors. From a technology perspective, it’s also worth seeing how modern iterations of VR hardware differs from precedents.

Before you laugh too hard about the older looking VR hardware, I am absolutely convinced that ten years hence we will chuckle when we see photos of even the most advanced VR hardware on the market today.

In order to define the scope of “VR history”, we have to establish a working definition of the term “Virtual Reality”, a strange, oxymoronic term if there ever was one. I like this definition, shamelessly cribbed from the article we're about to read from the Virtual Reality Society: "virtual reality technology provides the means of creating the illusion that we are present somewhere we are not". If you think it's worth expanding or narrowing this definition, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this in the comment section of this unit. Under this definition, both laptop screens and head-mounted displays (HMDs) can deliver VR experiences.

After you read and watch a few things, I’ll present some questions for you below.

Suggest Path Through Some Materials:

1. Read this article on the history of virtual reality hardware, and this article on the history of VR marketing.

2. Watch this movie (embedded below), which is a report by CBS in 1992 about Virtual Reality Technology.

3. Read the materials below about the stereoscope.

4. Answer the questions at the bottom of the unit in the comments section, and respond to at least one of the responses from your peers (the more the merrier!).

5. Bonus: Read the Ray Bradbury short story called "The Veldt". (link here)


The above stereographic image is titled: "the stereograph as an educator", and it depicts a woman at her home viewing stereographs with an extensive collection of stereographic images behind her. Sorry teachers, I guess we've been replaced by technology well before this modern age. :)

Check out this link about the stereoscope, paying particular attention to its use in the education space.

See here John Dewey writing about the stereoscope in the section called "Direct Proof".

Now check out this remarkable section of the School Bulletin (1904) on the Great Aid No. 2: the Stereoscope, and the "Very Unusual Offer" from a company trying to sell stereoscopes into schools! IMHO, not a lot has changed here by way of marketing, fanciful claims about how "things will never be the same", and the "absolute necessity" of this hardware for educational success.

Wow! Now see this text, from the paragraph starting "the photograph, the print, the lantern slide...." and finish up on page 10. Ignore the graph about coal production. :)

Renewed interest in VR + education is rapidly growing. Google searches for "virtual reality and education" in January 2017 were four times what they were in January 2016.

Questions/Food For Thought:

  1. Are tools like Google Cardboard fundamentally different from the "VR" devices of the past? Are the way teachers are currently using Cardboard different from the way teachers used Stereoscopes? 

      2. What is your take on the way that VR hardware/software is/was marketed for the education space? Effective, accurate, misleading, sensational....? What do you think? Feel free to provide examples with links. 

  1. In the 1992 CBS video, do you share the concerns about VR technology expressed at the end of the video? Why or why not? 

  1. Was it helpful to explore the historical context of virtual reality hardware and some of the history of 3D visual tech in the classroom?