A whole new (virtual) world

Published 8:42 pm Saturday, January 9, 2016

Many of the folks reading this page will recall exactly where they were when man first walked on the moon, and there’s a good chance that was in the family’s living room, gathered around a small black-and-white television.

As Neil Armstrong hopped from the last rung of the Eagle lander and made his famous proclamation about “one small step,” a camera on the outside of the lunar module captured the momentous event in a grainy video that would change the way we thought of just about everything.

It was an experience shared by an estimated 600 million people around the world. But still, it was an arms-length experience for everyone but astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. There was, of course, no sense of being there for any of those watching on television, except in the philosophical sense of sharing a moment through the brotherhood of mankind.

Email newsletter signup

Things have advanced by leaps and bounds in the ensuing decades, though, and a new technology promises to give people the chance for immersive experiences that will at least give them the feeling, if not the reality, of being there, whether for historic events such as the moon landing or for more mundane things like remote family gatherings.

Two Suffolk schools have — or will soon have — the opportunity to test drive this virtual reality technology from an educational perspective, and the early reviews are unreservedly positive.

At Elephant’s Fork Elementary School this week, students took turns strapping Google Cardboard glasses to their faces for a 3-D look at the Great Barrier Reef, the Roman Colosseum, the surface of Mars and other exotic locations.

“This is amazing,” said third-grader Aniayh Joyner, twisting around in a circle with the viewfinder glued to her face while she “explored” the reef. “When I look through here, I feel like I’m swimming though the sea.”

Google believes there’s money to be made in the experience, and, judging from the reactions of the students and educators at Elephant’s Fork, the company is probably right.

Imagine the impact, for example, of a lesson about Mars during which students actually feel as if they are standing on its surface. Imagine the insights they could gain about the inner workings of the human body if they could take a virtual journey through the bloodstream.

This is the stuff of science fiction, except that it’s suddenly all virtually within reach.

If you thought it was hard to get your kids to put down their smartphones before, just wait until they use those devices to be transported to rainforests of South America, the beaches of Hawaii or the vast reaches of space.