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Taking a Journey to Mars

Two weeks ago I returned to GESS Dubai for my seventh year and delivered a set of presentations on the theme of VR in education. In the lead up to the event I heard that a local company called Alef Education would be showcasing a virtual reality Journey to Mars experience. I’ll admit to being somewhat skeptical as to the format and quality of the experience as I had already been hands-on with excellent Mars themed apps like Mars Walk VR on iOS and the webVR Access Mars project from Google and NASA. (Information about these experiences and more can be found in my Space: The Virtual Frontier article.)

I made a point of seeking out the experience during the conference and was delighted to find myself engaged with what is one of the most impressive examples of virtual reality I’ve yet seen.

The demo was running on the HTC Vive and rigged up to a large projection screen to share with the audience (and they ALWAYS had an audience). It starts inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars. The attention to detail in the graphics was immediately evident but so was the nature of the user experience. This is no passive experience for learners but rather a fully gamified, immersive take on the concept of a trip to Mars. Right from the off, you are tasked with various interactions to move the narrative along and the more you engage, the deeper you are pulled in.

So during the trip to the red planet, a meteor shower damages the ship. This leads to the first major sequence as you don a space helmet and head out through the air lock for a spacewalk with the objective of identifying and fixing the problem. Again the quality of the app is just stunning here and I saw several conference-goers struggle with vertigo as you are asked to make the jump required to reach your goal.

Soon after fixing the ship you reach your destination: Mars. It’s another wonderful moment and even though I have stood virtually on Mars within other apps, this was nonetheless a breath-taking moment. Next up you have to locate the UAE Space Agency (the project is aligned with the UAE’s Mars Initiative) and the oxygen you now need quite urgently.

The final sequence inside the Mars base is probably my favourite part. The (space) dust has settled and the big set piece of the meteor shower/spacewalk is over but now the logistics of existing on Mars come in to play. To survive on Mars you’d need food and to grow crops, hydroponics are the solution. The final challenges involve growing plants by fertilising seeds and activating the necessary lamps to nurture them. It’s a great way to round off the experience and highlights the educational nature of an experience that is so game-like in many ways.

Here’s a short video from GESS 2018 which shows me going hands-on with the app and also chatting with the creators:

Anyone who’s known me for a while will know I’m a huge fan of gamified learning. In fact I spoke on this theme at the very same conference back in 2015! What Journey to Mars offers in terms of gamification is similar to the likes of Titanic VR from Immerisve VR Education or Curiscope’s Operation Apex (which I covered recently here). In many ways virtual reality offers an incredibly organic way to integrate game mechanics into learning, as the user is personally immersed in the topic at hand. Challenges like those found in these apps ensure that the user experience is not passive and students are more deeply engaged. I definitely saw the power of this with Operation Apex and here, Journey to Mars could well usher in a new era in digital, game-based learning.

Journey to Mars is currently in development and will hopefully launch later this year.

Find out more about Alef Education by visiting their website here.

Read an interview with myself and the CEO of Alef Education at GESS 2018 - here.

#VR #Science #Vive

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