A tour of virtual reality resources and content creation tools

Paul Driver

Following on from What is virtual reality? and How can we use virtual reality to teach English?, the third article in this series from Paul Driver explores virtual reality resources and content creation tools. 

Hopefully, your curiosity regarding virtual reality has been well and truly piqued and you’re thinking “Where do I start with all this VR stuff?”. In this post I’ll share some of my favourite sources of virtual reality content and the go-to tools I use to create materials for my own students and trainees. Fasten your virtual seatbelts, pop on a Google Cardboard (other headsets are available) and join me on a tour of immersive 360° media.

Virtual reality resources

Sitting right under our noses is possibly the richest and most convenient source of 360° content, YouTube’s very own dedicated virtual reality channel.

YouTube’s VR channel has thousands of 360° videos to choose from. While these videos can also be found by directly searching on YouTube (usually just adding “360” after any search term does the trick), the channel simplifies the task of finding content and also curates the 360° videos into handy playlists.

One great way to use YouTube’s virtual reality channel is to search for content that ties in with the topic you are covering in class. You will almost certainly find something to use as a pre-lesson intro, to launch a discussion, or consolidate some new language. The first-person perspective can be especially powerful as a springboard for some creative writing too. Whether it’s describing a room, debating the merits of street art while cycling on a bike with no brakes through a tunnel in London, or exploring the future of work to contrast going to versus will, YouTube’s got you covered.

One of my current favourites is “The Female Planet” series, which uses virtual reality to give you an inspirational 360° look into the personal and professional experiences of “five extraordinary women from around the world with careers spanning technology, science, sports, and the arts.”

DiscoveryVR is also a rich source of high quality 360° content. The videos are accessible directly on their site, via their YouTube channel or through their Android and iOS apps. I have also used several VR experiences from the Guardian’s excellent VR digital journalism app, including a powerfully disturbing piece about solitary confinement, called 6×9, and the beautifully illustrated story “Sea Prayer” by Khaled Hosseini. The New York Times also has some great VR content and a dedicated app: NYT VR. I have an ever-expanding library of VR apps on my devices. Aside from those I have already mentioned, the ones I use most frequently are:

Within (I’ve used “Notes on Blindness” and “The Source” many times with students and trainees.)

Google Spotlight Stories (Be sure to check out the animated story “Pearl”.)

Jaunt VR (“The Shelf Life” series by the American Museum of Natural History is fantastically interesting.)

Content creation tools

To avoid some of the logistical hurdles of doing whole-class synchronous virtual reality activities, it is often more practical to use a flipped approach. Bear in mind though, that while 360° content can be viewed within a browser on most devices, the most immersive way to view is with a headset. One way to support learners who don’t own a headset is to keep some available to loan out to students. This is becoming increasingly common.

If you do wish to use VR synchronously in class, look for apps that allow you to download the VR experiences ahead of time. Streaming such large files can put a huge strain on all but the most robust of Wi-Fi networks and is better avoided. I learned this the hard way!

Consuming off-the-shelf 360° content is only half the fun. Why not create your own, for or with your students? To dip your toes in, you need nothing more than your smartphone and the free Cardboard Camera app (available for both Android and iOS devices).  This will enable you to take 360° photos by slowly rotating your phone around to capture everything around you. For better (and faster) results and the ability to take 360° video, you’ll need a camera built for this purpose. Just a few years ago these were very expensive and there wasn’t much choice. Now there is a flourishing market and prices have come down while the image quality has gone up.

For most, the lower-end cameras that range from £100 to £250 are more than good enough. These currently include the Moto360 camera, the Giroptic iO (both of which attach to your smartphone and can livestream in 360°), as well as the standalone LG 360 (my first 360° camera) and many others.

360° video can be edited using the most basic video editing software such as iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. However, adding interactivity is not yet a straightforward process for video. There are software packages and browser-based tools for achieving this but this is something that would require a whole other series of posts to explore in detail.

On the other hand, there is an easy-to-use tool for adding all sorts of interactive hotspots to 360° images that you may already be familiar with: Thinglink. Thinglink has been hugely popular with teachers since it launched way back in 2010. More recently, the ability for users to upload and annotate 360° panoramic images with text, image, audio and video was added. These interactive images can then be shared via a link or embedded elsewhere. Here’s an example I created, in just a few moments, to demonstrate some of the different hotspot types available:

While the ability to upload and annotate 360° content is currently limited to the Teacher Premium account, it is well worth the investment and, of course, you may be able to persuade your school to purchase a license for you. There is also a free trial period so that you can learn and experiment with the tool before purchasing.

Images can be uploaded and tagged directly in your browser on a desktop or laptop. However, there is also a very useful and intuitive app for creating content on mobile devices called Teleport 360 Editor.

One of the best features of Thinglink is that it enables you to connect sequences of 360° images to construct an explorable, interactive environment filled with rich media. You can use this to build stories and to design non-linear learning activities that encourage curiosity and promote learner agency and autonomy.

Being able to design lessons around a whole environment rather than just a flat image or video is empowering, but it can also be quite daunting. Don’t be intimidated by all of the opportunities and choices. Play around, explore the ready-made content and experiment by creating your own. There’s plenty of support out there so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Learn as you go and don’t forget to have fun.

My fourth and final post in this series will look at how virtual reality can be used in the context of teacher training and professional development. With an eye towards the future, I will also explore where current trends might lead us. See how a teacher has been inspired to put VR into practice, with Lulwa Bordcosh’s post Using virtual reality in the ESL classroom.

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