The Simpsons has an eerie knack for predicting the future. Looking back over the history of America’s favourite family, it’s surprising to see just how many slapstick scenarios and seemingly goofy jokes have been turned into real life situations, gadgets and more. Take virtual reality (VR), for example. In the past fans have seen an aged Bart Simpson play virtual pool with hand-tracking and even watched children get to work in a ‘Yard Work Simulator’, mocking an entire genre of videogames that hadn’t even been conceived when it was first shown. But it’s the first time that the show referenced VR that fans likely remember the most.
Many will recall ‘Marge vs. The Monorail’ as one of the all-time great episodes of a show that’s approaching its 27th season. In the episode, Lisa Simpson pauses to think about what her school could do with a large amount of money. She envisions everyone in her class having a wired head-mounted display (HMD), putting them on and travelling back to Mongolia, 1200 AD to meet with none other than the notorious Genghis Khan. He turns to the camera, addresses Lisa by name and tells her that she’ll go where he goes, defile what he defiles and eat what he eats.
It’s a brilliant joke but an even better glimpse into the future. Industry experts are only just starting to act upon VR’s potential to improve education. It’s going to take a long while to get there as steps in costs and quality have to be made before schools can even think about employing the use of HMDs. But when it finally becomes viable, VR technology could well be the most significant tool to hit classrooms in years.
The Simpsons makes the obvious reference to history. And it’s true; with convincing VR users can effectively travel in back time to historic eras. It can be a struggle to engage young learners through textbooks and field trips, but the idea of faithfully replicating these periods in VR and constructing ideal learning environments for children to run around in is immediately appealing. Imagine translating that to Geography, where users can visit locations around the world, changing weather effects or statistics on the fly to inspect every detail. Or perhaps allowing students access to dangerous materials in Chemistry lessons without burning down a classroom.
Even at a basic level, VR could be used to enhance Math lessons with an engaging platform. English teachers could cast their children in Shakespearean parts while Music sessions could now be carried out in grand arenas. Simply put, there’s no reason why a VR HMD couldn’t play a role in almost any subject that students are currently learning.
Again, there’s a long road to reaching this point. Schools are only just starting to adopt the idea of using tablets to create more engaging learning environments. It’s boggling to think that a concept that has been popularised for over half a decade now and makes complete sense for classroom integration is only just starting to catch on in this type of education, but that’s what it is. Will VR, which requires a high-spec PC and a $200+ HMD, take even longer to arrive for every child?
Thinking about the benefits that VR could have for education starts to make the more immediate impacts that the technology will play in entertainment feel somewhat insignificant. The tech is set to transform videogames but, going forward, it could be a revolutionary tool for schools. As much as fans can’t wait to play the latest releases with an Oculus Rift, it’s this potential that’s truly the most exciting prospect for virtual reality.