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Virtual Reality for English Literature



There are definitely some over-saturated subject areas when it comes to virtual reality in education. Science is by far the most common subject which developers gravitate towards I find, with themes like space and dinosaurs being recycled time and time again. I do understand the logic in focusing on these themes - they are the more “exciting” topics that are likely to have cross-over appeal beyond the education sector and into the realm of more casual users and even gamers.

What I have also seen is a real lack of quality VR content in certain other subject areas. In some cases there is so little content that it almost feels like opportunities are being missed. One such area is English Literature. Whilst the potential of VR as a medium for language instruction is definitely being tapped into already (hit up Michael at Gold Lotus for live English lessons in VR) there are very few virtual reality experiences dedicated to literature. The more creation-focused educators will be thinking about using platforms like CoSpaces and Tilt Brush to create the worlds of the stories that they are studying – but I am focused on transposing these classic tales into the immersive medium of virtual reality. Like so many have been turned into movies and shows in the past.

There are some options for the literature classroom, don’t get me wrong. There are some 360° videos related to books on YouTube e.g.



If there’s a movie version of the book you are studying, you’ll likely have more luck finding a 360° e.g. The Jungle Book clip above. For more 360° clips, check out the 360 English playlist on my YouTube channel)

There are very few actual VR apps based on classic stories. In fact a fresh trawl through the various app stores really did reveal slim pickings beyond this old Jack and the Beanstalk experience:

From time to time you also get games that borrow a theme from a classic narrative such as the recent Down the Rabbit Hole.



Another option would be to draft some new narratives into your curriculum – ones that were born into the virtual reality medium. There are some excellent examples in this regard – from the Google Spotlight Stories to the immersive stories produced under the Oculus Stories banner like Henry (below). The problem with this is that if your curriculum is locked in to using specific works by acclaimed authors, you may not have the scope to use anything different.



So why the lack of high-quality VR experiences based on classic literature? I imagine in part this could be to do with licensing rights, though classic literature would not bear that issue. There’s also the matter of length. We see all the time how Hollywood abridges chunky tomes down to palatable 2 hour movies. VR would need to do the same (or more) which could be off-putting to some developers.

However there are a couple of brilliant examples of what is possible when the medium of virtual reality is used for literature. Most of these are broadly available to the public through app stores yet and may never be… but they do offer a tantalising vision of how narratives transpose into engaging interactive experiences in VR.


Joycestick

Joycestick is an interactive experience based on the legendary novel Ulysses by James Joyce which started as student project at Boston College. You can read a lot more information about this project here.


Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka’s infamous tale of transformation was brought to haunting life at Prague’s Goethe-Institute and has since been on display at various other venues around the world. Find out more here.


Theatre VR – Hamlet

I was eagerly awaiting the launch of this platform which proposed to let you step inside Hamlet and act out key scenes. It seems to have since gone dormant (and my attempt to revisit the website was met with a Trojan infection warning) but nonetheless, I still think this type of app will become more popular in years to come.


The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe's classic poem comes to visceral life in this VR experience which is actually available for free on the Oculus Store.


I wish there were more examples to share with you but there really aren’t.

If I had to think of five that I’d love to see, I think it would be:


1. Dracula - and not just a vampire shooting/staking game

2. Macbeth - and you choose which character’s viewpoint you adopt

3. Oliver Twist – and not a musical version

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – in fact ANY Roald Dahl would be amazing

5. Coraline – I adore this Neil Gaiman story and I think VR is the perfect medium for it


What classic literature would you like to see transposed into VR? Shout at me on Twitter (@steve_bambury) if you want to share your ideas or start a discussion.


Finally I wanted to give a shout out to my good friend and former colleague Mel Guidera. Mel is one of the best English teachers I've ever met and a conversation with her last year was the original impetus for this article.

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