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To the Pyramids and Beyond: VR at BFS

 

“Wow, this is doing wonders for my fear of heights.”

“Oh my god, this is so cool!”

“I feel like a superhero!”

“I can’t believe I’m in Egypt.”

“You’re not, you’re in New York City.”

“Stop. No, I’m not.”

On a May morning, Middle School math teacher Karima Hassan, who pointed out that she herself is Egyptian, took time out from her usual class schedule to bring her students to the BFS library conference room for a mini-lecture on the Pyramids. It was also a demo of Google Expeditions, an educational app for the company’s Google Cardboard virtual reality product.  They sat around the conference table each wearing lightweight VR glasses, together in two places at once.

The lecture was as much a field test for the teacher as for the students.  With a tablet interface that let her control the action, Karima stood at the head of the room leading a tour via pop-up arrows that appearred inside the goggles directing students to turn — literally — their attention and their heads to the Temple of Khufu, an ancient Egyptian pyramid, where they hovered near its apex with a bird’s eye view of the area.  “It’s the largest pyramid on Earth,” explained Karima.  “See that hole in the middle? That was blasted in the 1800s by an explorer trying to get inside of it.”

She then teleported the class down to the nearby Sphinx where they stared directly at his massive paws and craned their necks upward to his broken off nose.  “The comparatively small sphinx is a temple dedicated to the sun, signifying the strength of the king, probably Khufu,” said Karima. Occasionally, like when students got too rowdy, a “Paused by Teacher” supertitle appeared across their screens, snapping students back to real life.

After concluding the Egypt module, Karima was able to launch the students to a coral reef on the other side of the world, and then to the surface of Mars, which was “surprisingly not covered in aliens” as one student pointed out.

At the conclusion of the 30-minute session a representative from Google led a brief Q&A regarding improvements the students would like to suggest.

“I would add a strap because if you’re holding it it can wobble.”

“A pop-up bubble with some text on top of the image so we know what we’re seeing and when it was made.”

“Adding some motion to it instead of just still images.”

“Making it focusable because some spots are blurry.”

Curious onlooker Jessica Jones, BFS’ Middle and Upper School Jazz Band Director, sat in on the session. Afterward she asked the Google rep to load the New Orleans jazz tour program for her to explore and evaluate.

Google Expeditions is being beta-tested at select schools around the world and BFS is lucky to be among the first to try it out. Academic Technology Department Chair and Middle School Technology Integrator Liz Harnage applied for the visit on the school’s behalf.