greater spaces

Low Poly VR: The Future of Climate Change Education

Remember when iPads in schools seemed like a far off dream? Now Virtual Reality (VR) is the next wave in education. Gone are the clunky headsets of the past, and we now have headsets such as the Oculus (Meta) Quest 2 which is a wireless solution with built in wifi, allowing for freedom of movement. You’ve likely tried a Virtual Reality (VR) experience, it was perhaps amusing, perhaps a wow-moment, or perhaps not. VR applications include everything from simulation training for the health care, automotive, space and other sectors, to therapy, to shopping. Within education, VR has been successfully utilized for training purposes in the workforce, and is being explored for youth’s education. Adobe has a great overview of VR in Education and many companies are seeking to explore their area.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid

One such company developing solutions in this area is Gagarin, the Experience Design firm in Iceland who has created Astrid, a climate change education suite designed for and with youths and their teachers. Utilizing their 27 year history in designing interactive, immersive experiences in museums, Gagarin has developed the products in Astrid to challenge the premise that VR is a solo experience, or that learning about climate change issues should be all doom and gloom. Instead, they focus on a message of hope, empowering youth to learn about and debate climate change issues, becoming actors in the fight against climate change.

Illustration: Gagarin Beatriz Prados

Garden of Choices - a multi-player, immersive VR game

Five students stand in a circle, becoming amazed by the sheer amount of CO2 we’re producing today. As they encounter a variety of climate change issues, they must decide as one, which future actions would be best for people, planet and economy. This short VR experience gives them the tools and knowledge to debate climate change issues and is part of a larger curriculum created by the folks at Gagarin.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid

Technology and Design Decisions

In the production of the first iteration of Garden of Choices (version 2 is currently under development), a number of useful and important learnings led to decisions in the graphics and game play. One of these was timing - 20 minutes is the maximum amount of time that people really enjoy being immersed in VR. Any longer and they tend to feel tired. Furthermore, the graphical decisions were coupled to technological capabilities. During development, the original Oculus Quest was used which wasn’t capable of rendering complicated 3D models within the headset’s own computer and thus, a decision was made to prevent lag and freezing, that the animation style would be low-poly. Furthermore, to be able to have a co-located, multiplayer game (5 players in the same space), a number of technical decisions needed to be made.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid

Firstly, although Oculus has developed a co-location option, they have not yet released it, so the Astrid team had to work around this by setting up a central speaker which all players were oriented to be facing at the start of the session. This was done to avoid echoing and to allow for the key element - the debate amongst youth. Incidental sounds, those happening around or behind players remained in the headsets to allow for a spatial sound experience.

To accommodate for five players starting at once in the same space, there is an initiation sequence of starting up all five headsets and going into each one to establish a ‘player ready’ status before starting the game.

In the next version, Astrid will maintain its low-poly look and feel, this was a hit amongst youth who liked the quirky graphical elements and it means the game play is smoother from a performance perspective.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid

A user centred design approach

When applied well, a user centred design thinking approach can make a substantial difference in products and services. Garden of Choices has been tested with over 200 youths and their teachers in Iceland and Denmark. They have had input throughout the past two years on everything from how the questions are asked and answered, to how students relate to the graphics. The educational climate change content has been co-created with scientists and climate change experts. The product is both well researched and also designed for a particular age group, 15 - 17 year olds who are not necessarily getting the climate change education they both desire and need.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid

VR Edutainment

Edutainment is the term being used for applications such as Garden of Choices, where education and entertainment merge. With Astrid, the goal is to encourage youths to become curious and engaged in climate change education, and to utilize the power of immersive experiences to teach these vital issues. This is the first product in the Astrid suite, which aims to utilize new technologies such as Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, and tangible, embodied, interactive experiences to explore and debate climate change issues.

Illustration: Gagarin, Astrid by Beatriz Prados

Learn more about Astrid at www.astrid.is and Gagarin at www.gagarin.is

Vanessa Julia Carpenter is currently consulting for Gagarin and helping to develop Astrid and bring it to schools in Denmark. Contact her at vanessa@astrid.is for more information.

PS: Did you see our last blog? Be sure to listen to the “Techies and Artists” podcast episode featuring Simon Lajboschitz, Co-founder and CEO at Khora VR (Blurred Realities #2) who is speaking about how Khora is addressing education in VR!

Majken Overgaard er programleder ved Catch (www.catch.dk), som er et center for kunstdesign og teknologi. Ud over sit fuldtidsarbejde har hun været medstifter af to firmaer siden 2011 og har fokuseret på feministisk aktivisme inden for kunst og teknologi. Vanessa Julia Carpenter har en ph.d. i Designing for Meaningfulness in Future Smart Products fra AAU. I sit firma, Kintsugi Design, udvikler hun design- og teknologiløsninger med et meningfuldt perspektiv for at fokusere på vores mål i livet. Hun har for nylig taget initiativ til det nordiske netværk Women in Hardware (www.womeninhardware.dk).
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