By: Fernando Ledezma
Since 2013, the Learning Experiences Innovation Laboratory (LINNEA), a joint-venture between Cengage Learning – National Geographic Learning and the University of Chihuahua, Mexico, has been exploring the use of VR games as tools for engage users on learning experiences related with natural and cultural conservation.
The first product on this line of research and development, an Oculus Rift videogame called “Reto Holtún” (Holtun Challenge), was developed in collaboration with Guillermo De Anda, Mexico´s first and only National Geographic explorer, who helped to recreate Holtún, a sacred underwater cave located in the mayan rainforest, and currently open only for research purposes.
The game, created by an disciplinary-overlapping team of software programmers, 3d modelers, interface designers, video, communication and learning specialists, allows the user to virtually dive in the cenote (the local name for underwater caves), with the task to collect (with the help of the Leapmotion motion sensor) objects, immersing the user into a discovery process to learn about real findings from the multiple De Anda’s expeditions.
The experience of developing a VR game with learning purposes has led LINNEA specialists to diverse findings regarding user experience and interface design, ergonomics, translating gestures from real to virtual spaces, workflow modelling, and how to effectively and subtlely embed gamification learning microtasks into the narrative of the game.
The different iterations of Reto Holtún – targeted to users ranging from as little as eight years old to adult age- had been demoed in diverse academic and industry events such as VirtualEduca (Perú), Guadalajara International Book Fair (México), CES’ TransformingEDU (United States), and more recently SXSWEdu (United States), obtaining favorable impressions and allowing the team to gather invaluable feedback from fellow experts from different countries.
After this first VR game project, and starting right from the learned lessons and shared findings, LINNEA is now working on the early stages of two new VR projects: “Ruta Rarámuri” (Raramuri Trail) and “El niño y la nube” (The boy and the cloud).
“Rarámuri: En primera persona” will take the user into a VR, fast-paced outdoor adventure across the majestic natural wonders of the world-known northern Mexico sierra and the cultural richness of it’s rarámuri ethnic group.
On a more recent application field, “El niño y la nube” will be an interactive VR, short animation movie, that will allow the user to learn about and develop empathy with the urgency of water scarcity Issues.
With some of the top industry players pushing boundaries, mainly on the hardware side, consumer-level VR technology seems to be here to stay; the challenge for us educators and researchers, will be to get over the soon-to-end hype with solid, scientificaly-proven platforms, models and aproaches that effectively align the potential of the technology with real value learning experiences and improvements.
It is worth mentioning that the University of Chihuahua is the only mexican, public university that works on Virtual Reality interactive learning experiences in Latinamerica region, with projects founded mainly with the support of the Federal Ministry of Education.