Last week saw the launch of something quite special though – Home: a VR Spacewalk for the HTC Vive. Not only is this a stellar (no pun intended) example of an educational resource for this theme but it also marks the beginning of a new era in VR production for the BBC. Definitely exciting times ahead if this is an example of the quality they will output.
Inspired by the launch of Home, I decided to take a little spacewalk of my own – through the App Store, YouTube and Steam. My mission? To identify the best educational content for helping students learn more about Space and the Solar System. I can tell you now – this was no mean feat...
If there’s one topic that crops up in abundance in the pantheon of AR and VR experiences, it’s Space. The volume of AR and VR content related to all aspects of astrology and the solar system is quite simply staggering. Naturally with the quantity comes variable quality and in many cases the apps on offer seem more like tech demos than complete experiences. Just look in the App Store under AR Solar System and you’ll see what I mean – there’s literally dozens of apps called this!
I decided to narrow the list down to 20 experiences across four categories: AR apps, 360 videos on YouTube, mobile VR apps and full VR experiences from Steam. Obviously my main criteria for inclusion was quality but I also tried to incorporate a broad range of experiences – i.e. not just five pretty identical AR solar systems for that category. Most of the content included is free too and where it isn’t I can guarantee you that I have tested it and feel that the cost is justified.
Let’s start with the AR apps:
The Space-themed AR apps vary in quality a fair amount. Many are simply augmented reality models of planets/the solar system and nothing more. Here are my five picks that are a cut above the rest:
NASA Spacecraft 3D
I guess we have to start with a NASA app right? Especially when it's been one of the best educational AR offering for the last few years and has such a huge range of interactive content. It's free too. We like free.
Lunar and PlanetARy
If you want another option for introducing AR models into your classroom then this app is well worth checking out. Download the free PDFs (or even poster-sized triggers) and access a set of well-detailed models that include some unique interactions such as pulling an asteroid apart into slices.
Sky Guide AR
Of the several augmented reality astrology apps that are now available, I think this is the most child friendly and has some wonderful content to help kids learn more about the constellations. Take a look at the clever time lapse video of the app in action below, courtesy of Robert McGregor.
A.R. Solar System
Of the many, many AR Solar System apps that are available, I picked this one for two reasons. Firstly it utilises the new ARkit tech so that the model can be fixed to any surface and then maneuvered around freely with little disruption to the AR. Secondly, as you approach any of the planets, a neat little factfile pops up!
I do love the Octagon 4D series and the set of cards that you buy to activate this broad set of AR experiences is well worth the small investment. Great for an independent learning station.
360 Videos on YouTube
It’s worth mentioning the NASA channel for 360 content right off the bat which you can find here.
I wanted to include a range of content though so here are my five video picks:
NASA Astronaut training
How about this for a NASA video! My one pick from them is this great look inside the astronaut training programme.
Explore the Solar System
I've mentioned this one from Thought Cafe before. My five year old loves it but the depth of detail makes it suitable for older primary students too.
Journey to the birth of the Solar System
Playing out like a VR lecture, this unique film is hosted by David Kaplan - a theoretical particle physicist at Johns Hopkins University - and details the birth of the solar system!
VR Walk on the Moon with Gene Cernan (USA Today)
Using real images from NASA and embedded historical footage. This one from USA Today is a firm favourite for use in the classroom.
Mars - The Red Planet 360 VR Documentary
Theofanis Matsopoulos hosts this short documentary that provides a detailed look at Mars.
Mobile VR apps
Perhaps even moreso than the AR apps, the Space-themed VR content available for mobile headsets varies in quality massively. Of the four categories here, this one took far longer to explore in order to eliminate the weaker offerings and choose the five to highlight.
Mars Walk VR
This app produced in association with Lockheed Martin is simply put one of the best mobile VR apps available in any category. Very few mobile apps offer such high levels of interaction and the whole thing is designed with students in mind. Easily one of the most highly recommended options on this list.
KSC 360 Expedition
This virtual tour of the famous Kennedy Space Centre is jam-packed with information and multimedia content. A real gem of a find that is worth seeking out.
Edge of Home
In locating the Kennedy app above, I came across this other excellent offering from KSC. Take a virtual tour of the International Space Station in this informative app.
Liftoff VR is a unique app that allows you to experience a rocket launch and travel with it towards Space where it deploys a satellite. Users then have the additional challenge of landing the booster rockets.
With multiple experiences available covering topics like Jupiter, Astronomy and even the staff at NASA, Expeditions remains a great choice for accessing free VR content on mobile devices.
Steam VR apps
As we enter the heavy-hitting territory of full, high-end VR experiences, the choices are still pretty good. Narrowing down to just five left me with the following suggestions:
Apollo 11 VR
Award winning, standard setting and simply stunning; this is the app that really put Immersive VR Education on the map and absolutely has to be the first palce to start for Steam VR space apps.
Curiosity (within Engage)
This spiritual successor to Apollo 11 is found within the Engage platform. What makes this extra special is the fact that multiple users can experience the Curiosity landing together. Take a look at the clip below to see what happened when Immersive put a real astronaut into the experience...
Titans of Space 2
The follow up to the critically acclaimed Titans of Space takes things to a whole new level on the Vive and Rift with a huge range of content to interact with.
Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars
Learning about space? Why not bring one of the most famous astronauts of all time into the classroom as a guest speaker. The original Buzz shares some dreams and plans for a future on Mars! Would make an amazing stimulus at the start of a Mars themed project.
Also available is a short, parallel 360 on YouTube -
Home: a VR Spacewalk
So I will finish where I started - with the outstanding Home: a VR SpaceWalk from the BBC. Truly an app that needs to be experienced and free to download from Steam. Take a look at the trailer below and if you get the chance to try it for yourself, don't pass it up!