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Using AR/VR to enter fantasy worlds

Do you like the graphic? If you’re a Stranger Things fan, you'll no doubt recognise it and are likely wondering how I made it. The answer is this cool little web app which you can find here.

So indeed, this piece is somewhat inspired by the fantastic slice of sci-fi brilliance that is Stranger Things. I absolutely love that show and having recently finished the new season on Netflix, it had me thinking a lot about the whole concept of portals to parallel worlds. It’s a concept I’ve explored in the classroom before (though obviously not with quite so much of a horror slant as the show.) I used it as the hook for creative writing a few years back with Year 4 students alongside my good friend Asa Firth. Back then I remember we physically built worlds by draping material around the classroom, stacking tables and chairs in curious ways and having students become part of these bizarre installations that other classes would move through. Lots of fun and surprisingly effective but it was definitely hard for some of the kids to remove themselves from the fact that they were still in the classroom. Simply put, it just wasn’t immersive enough.

Both AR and VR have huge scope for transporting students to fantasy worlds to explore and frame creative writing. It’s definitely trickier for AR as the nature of the format means you are bringing content into you physical space and thus not removed from it. That being said, Figment AR does a pretty impressive job by harnessing the AR portal effect that was showcased in the early days of ARKit demos:

Unfortunately the spaces that you can move into are 360 images of real places rather than fantasy worlds so the potential for harnessing this right now is slightly limited. I'm hoping that we'll soon see something more akin to this popular ARkit demo clip that did the rounds several months back:

The wonderful Paul Hamilton has something along this theme in the works though - an AR app to supplement a rewrite of his book "If I Were a Wizard." The app will allow users to enter the magical world of the book's character Hazel in augmented reality. Paul recently shared an early look at the app in action with me:

Pretty cool right? You can read more about the project here and make sure you follow Paul on Twitter - he's one of the most innovative teachers I know.

So how about VR? It's a more natural fit that's for sure. Whereas AR is a platform for importing virtual content into your reality, VR is a means to export people into a different one. What I didn't want to consider though were game apps. There are obviously dozens and dozens of VR games that are set in amazing fantasy worlds (hello Skyrim) but for classroom purposes, these are not ideal. The control interface is often more complex and games will begin with lengthy tutorials - neither of which are what you want students focusing on as a part of a lesson. They will also have objectives and possibly even confrontations/fighting elements whereas we want students exploring the space free of tasks, quests or battles. I'm reminded of another project with Asa from our time back in Year 4 together - using the tech demo Epic Citadel on the iPad to inspire some Viking sagas. That worked for the exact reasons just outlined - the focus was on the setting itself and nothing more.

Surprisingly there aren't really any decent mobile VR apps for this purpose - or at least none that I could track down in the App Store. There is an app called VR Fantasy Worlds Cardboard but the quality is quite poor. As such I turned to the trusty YouTube 360 to see what treats I could unearth. Here are three interesting choices from what I found:

1. 360 Animated Fantasy World

The graphics are a little blocky but the idea is otherwise pretty well-executed. Could work well with younger students:

2. Cosmic Gardening

Ethereal and a little more sci-fi, this one could definitely inspire some creative settings for story writing!

3. Paprikaland

A little short but this one has a trippy Wonderland vibe:

Of course if you are writing to a specific theme other than "fantasy world" there are other options on YouTube too including Dinosaur lands, Viking villages and more.

What about with the Vive then? I've written before about using the Nature Treks VR app for creative writing and it's definitely a good choice for more realistic settings. For fantasy worlds, a great place to start would be Sansar since it offers such a diverse range of user created worlds to explore. As these are social experiences too, multiple students could actually collaborate within the experience (if you have enough Vives.)

The variety of worlds already available through Sansar really is quite staggering and the quality of the experiences is first rate. Being able to let students enter different worlds quickly and easily is also a big plus, though you do need to ensure that you know who else is using these virtual spaces.

Beyond this there is one other excellent option - have the students build their own world! This could potentially be done using Sansar but it would take some time and require a fair degree of familiarity with the platform. You could use.the CoSpaces platform too and access a simple VR world of your own design on a mobile device. However, for real scale, depth and creative expression, Tilt Brush would be the best option. Just take a look at the amazing Winter Wonderland by artist Rein Bijlsma -

Now I know what some of you are probably thinking - it would take students a long time to create something like this. Potentially true but with the launch of Google's Blocks app and subsequently their Poly platform, the creation process for a simple VR world could have just become a lot quicker:

"Poly lets you quickly find 3D objects and scenes for use in your apps, and it was built from the ground up with AR and VR development in mind. It’s fully integrated with Tilt Brush and Blocks, and it also allows direct OBJ file upload, so there’s lots to discover and use. Whether you’re creating an intense space walk in VR or a serene garden of AR flowers, you’ll find the ingredients you need in Poly."

So students could use elements from Poly to begin building a VR world and then embellish it within Tilt Brush. Another thing that I find some students forget is that Tilt Brush projects CAN be saved and returned to another day - it doesn't have to be completed in a single session. Perhaps students could work on the world throughout a whole term and then unveil it at the very end...

To finish off I'd like to bookend this article with another little piece of Stranger Things for you all. This is one of my favourite pieces of art created in Tilt Brush by the artist known as Sutu Eats Flies. Click the image to watch a video of it on Facebook - it really is impressive.

#AR #VR #English #TiltBrush

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