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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The exciting potential of the Xbox One, Hololens and Minecraft in teaching. Part 1.

I remember when I saw Star Wars (IV A New Hope)  for the first time. I was wide-eyed, young and mesmerised by George Lucas' world of bizarre creatures, Jedi Knights and X-wings. In amongst this iconic cinematography was a scene which was fundamental in shaping my passion for technology and taught a valuable life lesson. It was not the shooting of Greedo the bounty hunter, nor the exploding Death Star but the Holochess game which was played between the meticulously groomed and conditioned: Chewbacca and the bleeping, whistling, childlike droid: R2D2. The game was played on a circular chessboard with the pieces being represented by holograms of animated aliens, which brawled each other when a piece was taken. I thought that this technology was amazing and could only be achieved in a future far, far away. Little did I know, I was witnessing for the first time, what we refer to now as 'augmented reality'; a technology which superimposes a computer generated image on a user's view of the real world, creating a new composite view. However, overshadowing the magic of the special effects was the warning from Han Solo, which still rings as true as it ever did: 'Let the wookie win'.

Today I experienced the same rush of inspiration and wonder which Star Wars had initially conjoured, when I viewed YouTube footage of a particular presentation from E3: the most prestigious gaming expo of the year.

The console: Xbox One.
   The game: Minecraft.
      The new hardware: The Hololens.

After Lydia Winters enthusiastic introduction, the film shows the user wearing the Hololens headset and playing Minecraft on the Xbox One. Instead of playing the game on a traditional monitor, the player, when wearing the device, experiences the game on a virtual screen which appears to be projected on to thin air, in front of them. Impressive? Certainly. Although, as genuinely exciting as this is, it was hard to see beyond the gimmick. Why, when the nation has been conditioned over years to own televisions, would they favour wearing costly cyber specs over the technology they already own?

Arthur C. Clarke once said: 'Any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic'. This magic occurred shortly afterwards, when the player stood in front of a square table and cast his spell by saying 'Create World'. Instantly the surface of the table was covered in sand blocks -from within the game- and a fence running around the perimeter. The sand then fell away into a virtual hole, revealing  a 3d, Minecraft world which rose up, out of the tabletop, appearing as though it were a physical model. However this model was animated. Lava flowed, minecarts whizzed around the rails and the player's avatar could be seen jumping and running through the cubic landscape. Equally as impressive, was the ability to see through the walls of built structures, as though the user was a giant peeking through a window, or the way they could see the subterranean chasms underneath the green hills.

Augmented reality, which has been exhibited through silver screen trickery for years (Minority ReportWho Framed Roger Rabbit, Iron man, Avatar etc.) is finally emerging and becoming available to the masses to manipulate and explore games in a new way. It is my opinion this technology could change the way that future generations of pupils access learning, offering exciting possibilities for them to engage with the subject matter. Such as handling virtual artifacts from museums to aid history lessons, exploring a tabletop rainforest to learn about ecosystems or understanding geometry by experimenting within a 3d augmented reality space.  Despite the opportunities this technology offers, it is not without its problems. Although it has been demonstrated at E3, I expect that it, like other devices (Microsoft Kinect, wii  controllers and Playstation's Eye Toy), is not as responsive or as polished as we are led to believe. Equally, as Wheeler (2015) implies in his book: Learning with 'e's, that it would be foolish to suggest that we can educate with these new tools, without adapting the method and practice of teaching. As he states that students are:
'demanding - and expecting - new approaches to learning, approaches that incorporate technology' p.5
Another consideration would be that teachers and children alike, will require training on how to use augmented/virtual reality equipment. This will take a considerable amount of time, time which overworked and overburdened teachers, and over assessed pupils faced with a tightly packed curriculum, do not currently have within the United Kingdom. The final drawback would be the cost of both the hardware and software needed to implement these changes. Luckily, the heavy competition in similar devices to the Hololens could drive the prices down, but thus far, there has been no indication of how much they will sell for. Traditionally, educational software has often been expensive and in my opinion has wildly, varying levels of quality and learning potential; only time will tell whether developers emerge that can create meaningful learning opportunities for students which are also value for money.

The video from the E3 show is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgakdcEzVwg

In my next blog, I shall discuss how the Hololens works in more detail, and in subsequent posts explore and critically analyse the potential for using virtual reality and augmented reality within the classroom.

Kotaku (2015) Minecraft Hololens demo at E3 2015 (amazing!), YouTube. [online] Available: <URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MnRkPvIjKE> [Access Date: 17th June 2015].

Wheeler, S. (2015) Learning with 'e's, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

Taken from a screenshot of footage from the above YouTube clip, from Kotaku.

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