On paper I am Christian, though I would probably call myself an atheist. My wife (also a Christian on paper) is more likely to quote the Buddha than the Bible. Nonetheless we have friends who are Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu, all of whom we view equally and whose beliefs we accept. We also make a point of ensuring our two daughters appreciate and understand the role that religion plays in people’s lives and grow up respecting other’s beliefs. We live in a world that is sadly permeated by hatred, bigotry and intolerance. Much of this relates to religion and ignorance about the different beliefs that people have. As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure that future generations are not blinded by race, colour or religious belief.
In a 2015 TED Talk, film-maker Chris Milk referred to VR as “the ultimate empathy machine.” Though the quote has since sparked quite a debate, his point is salient – virtual reality gives us a platform to immerse in worlds and experiences in ways that were never possible before. In this respect VR can provide an engaging new platform for exploring and explaining religious beliefs. It offers a path to a better understanding which is crucial if youngsters are to learn to appreciate and empathise with each other in this ever-shrinking, connected world.
Here I’d like to shine a spotlight on 10 virtual reality platforms for teaching students about different religions of the world.
Nearpod contains a Virtual Field Trip lesson called Mosques Around the World. The lesson contains four panoramas from mosques of different countries. Students are then prompted to discuss similarities and differences as well as things that surprised them about the buildings. A short, simple activity that would make for a great introduction to a study of Islam or places of worship.
Access the lesson here.
Nearpod can easily be used to build your own lessons too. Have a scan through the library of 360 images that can be accessed within the app (courtesy of 360 Cities) to see what’s possible.
Open Learn: Exploring Religion in London
This collection of 360 tours from The Open University is designed to share the experience of visiting seven of London’s key religious buildings. Each building is introduced by a leading member of the community associated with it which helps to provide insight and authenticity. It’s a wonderful project to highlight the diversity of London.
Access the playlist here.
On a personal note, I must highlight the tour of the Hindu Temple in Neasden. Before I moved to Dubai I worked at a small church school on the outskirts of London and students in Years 3 and 4 got to visit this stunning Mandir as a part of a project about India and Hindu culture. A decade later and it is still one of my all-time favourite field trips and one that anyone can now enjoy thanks to The Open University. Hosted by Yogendra Narendra Shah, this excellent 360 tour shows the temple inside and out, explaining its creation, significance and more.
This huge project represents the world’s first virtual reality Bible library. It’s an ever-expanding collection of experiences that can be accessed on mobile devices. This includes tours of Biblical sites, re-enactments of Bible stories and more. It uses a subscription service that may interest Christian schools or churches but does provide some interesting content for free including a look at Nazareth village, a tour of the path walked by Jesus on the way to crucifixion and this interesting look at a real life recreation of Noah’s Ark created in Holland:
Find out more about Bible VR here.
Available on the Gear VR, this is a fully immersive virtual trip to the centre of the Muslim faith. This app provides a tour of key locations and details specific rituals that are carried out during the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca many Muslims make during the Holy Month of Ramadan.) It’s fully animated in 3D rather than panoramic images/video and the attention to detail is high - a great way to see this holy place up close.
Download Experience Mecca here.
This great little app from Storydive is free and available on iOS and Android. It’s a digital retelling of the story of Moses complete with full narration and some well animated 3D. It’s also handily split up into chapters if you want to look at different parts of the story or return to specific sections. It’s one of the best apps for religious studies available on mobile devices right now.
Storydive also have an app called Bible VRX available with some interesting demos of other famous Biblical scenes including the Garden of Eden. Access their apps here.
Twist Mobile Hindu temple 360s
Whilst there are no dedicated apps that focus on the Hindu religion, Indian company Twist Mobile has produced some striking 360 videos in various temples across India. These clips are freely accessible on their YouTube channel and include clips from the famous Mahakaleshwar temple amongst others. Most of the clips are accompanied by a brief text explanation of the content and its importance to Hindus.
Access the Twist Mobile channel here.
Ancient Jerusalem VR
This unique app from Lithodomos VR places you in the streets of ancient Jerusalem. Available for free on iOS and Android, it presents the Western Wall and the surrounding city as it would have looked 2,000 years ago. Authenticity is paramount for an experience like this and Lithodomos have conducted thorough research, backed up by archaeological evidence to ensure that the detail is accurate. These include a reconstructed Western Wall with Herodian courses, a street level view surrounded by reconstructed houses and the bridge connecting two sections of the city. An excellent app for teaching students more about this important religious site.
Find out more about Lithodomos here.
Buddhism is another religion which is sadly not well represented in VR yet. There are several apps for relaxation and meditation which may well be harnessed by Buddhists but very few tools that could be used to help someone learn a little more about the religion itself. This free app from indie developer Artifice provides a more authentic experience than most with the use of 3D environments made from actual Japanese temples. Some come pre-loaded in the app and others can be downloaded for free. Each has a short introductory text explaining the significance of the location within Buddhist history.
Download the app for free on iOS here.
Virtual New Testament
Produced by Brigham Young University, Virtual New Testament is a multi-platform experience that does not work with VR headsets but still offers a fantastic learning opportunity for students. It boasts an amazingly detailed 3D model of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple with multiple viewpoints, integrated information points. You can also explore the Temple Mount in a ground-level walkthrough helping you visualize the significant events in the life of Jesus and his apostles that occurred there.
The views can be controlled via touch screen or gyroscopic motion but the street level walkthrough is touch screen only. I hope that they convert this to a full VR experience as it would elevate this already impressive application even further.
Download Virtual New Testament for free on a wide range of platforms including iOS, Android, PC and Mac here.
To round out my list I’m going for something developed right here in the UAE where I am based. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is one of the largest, most famous mosques in the world. Though you can access a VR tour of the building in Google Expeditions, this free iOS app offers some excellent additional features.
The tour can be accompanied by audio commentary in either English or Arabic and boasts multimedia hotspots with additional information as you navigate through the mosque. It also features an exclusive tour of the mosque’s library which no other app offers.
Download it here