Virtual reality offers unique possibilities for educators. Students can explore three-dimensional objects and environments, travel the world—and travel through history—and participate in activities either not possible or not practical in real life.
Here are the top hardware options for schools interested in exploring this technology.
HTC Vive: Most immersive
The most immersive—but also the most expensive—headset on the market, the HTC Vive is currently the headset that can teleport your users to any place from a street in Paris to an operating room.
This headset is the closest we can get right now to a Star Trek-style holodeck. But woah, this headset is expensive. HTC Vive starts at around $800, plus you need to spend at least another $1,000 for a high-end computer since your current desktops probably won't do the job.
Also, you're going to need a lot of room to move around in, since one of the big selling point of the Vive is the room-scale VR. What that means is you'll feel you're right in the game. Combined with the super-responsive gesture controllers, the virtual reality environments feel as real as you can get without a plug connecting directly into your brain.
I had a chance to try Vive. Honestly, I was a bit jaded, since I had previously tried the Oculus Rift and many other VR headsets, but the Vive blew me away.
In particular, I tried a couple of demos that involved painting in three dimensions, repairing a robot, and cooking a meal in a virtual kitchen. All are examples of how the HTC Vive could be adopted in school settings as part of learning simulations.
Google's Proto Awards-nominated Tilt Brush 3D painting app, in particular, can be used in a variety of disciplines to create virtual content, including everything from fashion design to engineering to, of course, art itself.
In addition, you could use HTV Vive and its apps in the Viveport to explore foreign destinations, architectural sites, museums, historical recreations, and small objects like blood cells, arteries or protein molecules. The field is in its infancy, but several very interesting applications are already available, including the Apollo 11 Experience, GE Neuro, COSM Worlds, Stars, Space is Alive, and the VR Museum of Fine Art.
Other headsets for programming classes
Oculus jump-started the current wave of VR interest with its successful crowdfunding campaign and $2 billion purchase by Facebook. The Oculus Rift headset also costs a little less than the Vive headset—around $600—but you still need an expensive, high-end computer.
The Facebook-Oculus ecosystem is one of the most robust ones in virtual reality, and would be a good headset for a games development class. So too the Playstation VR,. Although again, schools would need to invest in that development platform, which is not inexpensive.
Gear VR: The best mobile-based headset
For $99—and a late model Samsung Phone—the Samsung Gear VR headset is currently the best mobile-based virtual reality viewer on the market.
Samsung Gear VR. (Image courtesy Samsung.)
Although that might change when Google Daydream phone and headsets hit the market later on this year, right now the Gear VR, through its Oculus partner, offers a wide variety of very impressive virtual reality travel experiences, documentaries, museum tours and other applications that might be relevant to an educational environment.
One of the world's most popular games—and a favorite of many teachers—is the Minecraft building game, which has recently been released for the Gear VR as well.
The Google Cardboard platform is designed to work with a wide variety of smartphones, including almost all late-model Android and iPhones. Plus, the platform has the most content of any of the current virtual reality platforms, with thousands of videos and applications.
With headset prices starting at around $5 each, Google Cardboard VR headsets are the most economical platform that schools can use, especially if students bring their own phones.
And while the word "Cardboard" is in its name, and some headsets are, in fact, made out of cardboard, there are plenty of low-cost viewers made from sturdier materials. Look for features such as built-in buttons, adjustable lenses, comfortable headstraps and wide fields of view when making your choice.
And for younger students, the Mattel View-Master VR is a very easy-to-use and affordable plastic headset that works with both Androids and iPhones.
This is a new category of devices, and so far, the quality has been disappointing. But these viewers, which start at around $100, don't need to be connected to computers or smartphones—they have their brainpower built right in.
They typically run on some form of the Android operating system and work with most Google Cardboard-compatible applications and videos, and can also run custom-designed software.
I recently tested out one of them, the VR Sky headset pictured above, and its performance was very disappointing—even when compared to the ultra low-cost Google Cardboard headsets.
But keep an eye on this market segment. As the devices get better, they eliminate the need to have separate smartphones or computers for each headset, lowering the overall costs of deployment—a plus for every budget-strapped school.
Still not sure which vr headsets to buy, check out GearBrain's 11 Best VR Headsets or 11 Questions About Virtual Reality Headsets Before You Buy. Either of these articles will help you find the right vr glasses or headset that meets your virtual reality viewing needs today.