Friday, July 30, 2021

Virtual Reality in the Time of COVID

Generic disposable facial interface
Greetings from the weekly ASCILITE Mobile Learning Special Interest GroupThomas Cochrane raised the topic of how Virtual Reality (VR) can be used within COVID-safe restrictions. Expensive VR equipment has to be shared between students, but then how to do that safely? In response I did a quick search and found "Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display Cleaning and Disinfection Guide" (NSW Health, 2020). This recommended using a wipe-able and replaceable "facial interface" (the pad which goes around the wearer's eyes). Generic disposable facial interfaces look like a costume party mask, with elastic straps to fit over the ears. There are also Custom Disposable Hygiene Covers for specific headsets, such as the Oculus.

ESA UV-C
Headset Sterilization
The European Space Agency use a 
Phone Sterilizer
hand held UV-C light
 for sterilizing the entire headset, but that may not be safe for use in an educational environment. A few weeks ago I purchased a Phone UV Sterilizer, remaindered at a local store (KMART $2.50, similar units sold online for under $30). This is a USB powered box. The user closes the door and it floods the inside with UV-C for five minutes. A VR facial interface should fit in the box. 

However, I suggest looking at lower cost augmented reality (AR)  equipment which allows students to work together safely. An AR headset is not so closely coupled to the wearer's face. AR applications can also be used on the student's own smartphone, removing the need to share equipment. As well as reducing the risk of infection, this also makes it possible for students to see each other and work together, whereas a VR headset completely isolates them in the virtual environment. It should be kept in mind that social isolation is a threat to the student's health, brought about by infection control measures. There is little point in bringing students together in a classroom, if they are each isolated in their own VR bubble.

There is scope for innovation in the safe use of AR & VR for education. This does not require billions of dollars or the resources of a major technology company. Educators and technologists in schools, colleges and universities can make a useful contribution. They can then promote what works through local entrepreneurial centers. As an example, ANU students can get course credit working on software, hardware and business plans for new education initiatives. Staff and students can get training and business advice to set up a company at the government/university funded Canberra Innovation Center