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A new world of VR: ASU hosts first-ever Immersive Innovation Summit

Two-day event showcased narrative-driven virtual reality learning experiences

Woman wearing VR goggles

Keri Albers, from UC Irvine, puts on a VR headset during the Immersive Innovation Summit held at ASU Jan. 10–11. Attendees had the opportunity to experience a Dreamscape Learn biology program that engages ASU biology students through a narrative-driven, virtual reality experiences. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

January 18, 2024

Virtual reality is not new to academia, but it has entered a new realm.

The leap from virtual to extended reality is paving the way for a new kind of narrative-driven learning that can be scaled to meet the growing demands of industry and the next-generation workforce like never before.

Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow thinks it’s a tipping point in higher education.

“We’ve been looking for years to find an emotional trigger to enhance learning outcomes,” Crow said in his opening remarks on Jan. 10 at the first-ever Immersive Innovation Summit at ASU.

“In our case, we’re using an exploration experience to enhance (students’) learning, and it’s got unbelievable scale. In the past, we used to teach core knowledge to students backed up by all our faculty. We can now teach science, biology, chemistry, astronomy and planetary science through conceptual design. This is a way to change everything. … This is transformative.” 

The summit was held Jan. 10–11 and hosted by ASU, featuring Dreamscape Learn. The two-day event invited approximately 150 academics, K–12 education leaders, technology experts and philanthropists from around the country to network, tour the campus, and participate in panel discussions and exhibits to discover innovations in the development and execution of VR experiences for learning.

“ASU and President Crow decided to host the Immersive Innovation Summit because of our partnership with Dreamscape Learn, and also wanting to showcase other ASU innovations and Realm 4 work,” said Lisa Flesher, chief of Realm 4 initiatives at ASU. “We wanted to bring other educators and community members to come and experience the work at an education institution, and know that they could do this, too.”

Flesher said approximately 18,000 students have experienced Dreamscape Learn, which is part of Realm 4 learningAccording to ASU Enterprise Technology, Realm 4 learning encompasses the next evolution of education, building off the existing benefits of technology-enhanced education. This new type of learning fosters education that is immersive, exploratory and increasingly collaborative, with examples including virtual and augmented reality opportunities for group learning. , since it began — and the results are promising. She said in addition to giving the Dreamscape Learn program high ratings, students are 1.7 times more likely to earn an “A” in their lab courses.

“We’re at a turning point in a lot of ways and we’re really excited,” Flesher said.

The summit also featured a co-keynote presentation by Crow and Walter Parkes, chairman and co-founder of Dreamscape Immersive, a California-based technology company that combines the emotional power of Hollywood storytelling, the visceral excitement of a theme-park ride, and educational scenarios that enhance and inspire learning.

Two people on stage talking during event
Dreamscape Learn co-founders ASU President Michael Crow and Walter Parkes discuss the art of storytelling during a keynote lunch at the first-ever Immersive Innovation Summit at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

“There (are) many levels of content that one can create with these tools,” said Parkes, who is also a veteran film producer, screenwriter and studio executive. “We understand some of the fundamental building blocks of storytelling and see how they can be applied to certain teaching environments.”

One of the more popular attractions of the summit was “Alien Zoo,” a concept written and developed by Parkes and Steven Spielberg, which never made it to the big screen. Dreamscape Learn and ASU saw the immersive experience, which transports participants on a 16-by-16 railed platform with a moving floor and blowing wind to an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary, and it was the starting point for the VR-developed experience to introduce biology concepts to ASU students. 

“With VR, the university can make teaching exciting, personal and at scale,” said Ariel Anbar, a President’s Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Molecular Sciences.

“We know how to teach people about geology, right? We can take them into the field. If I take my car, I can fit five in my car. If I’ve got 50 students, now it’s an operation that’s ... more difficult.

“This technology enables us to start doing some very engaging, emotive things in a way that you can’t do on a large scale in ordinary teaching. With VR, I could take 500 students into the field without ever getting into my car.”

“VR can also make teaching very intimate and personal,” said Auryan Ratliff, director of creative and emerging technology with EdPlus at ASU.

Dozens of people listen to opening remarks at summit
More than 120 guests listen to opening comments during the Immersive Innovation Summit held at ASU Jan. 10-11. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

He said instructional designers there can design courses or immersive experiences for faculty to enhance student learning.

“With VR, we can take students on a journey to the Arctic Circle or go forward in time so they can see the effects of climate change,” Ratliff said, who added that a typical course design can take anywhere from six to 12 weeks depending on the subject matter. “Or they could employ a remote-operated vehicle, drill a hole in the ice to take thickness measurements, which they can then take back into the classroom and share the results.”

Ratliff said EdPlus is currently building an exciting and new experience in collaboration with the Foundation for Blind Children, based in Phoenix.

“This VR experience will help teachers who deal with visually impaired students so they can understand them better,” Ratliff said. “Our VR simulation will offer 10 different impairments so that teachers can experience what it is to have glaucoma, retinal detachment or low visual acuity.”

The Thunderbird School of Global Management has recently employed VR and digital avatars of its professors to teach international students through its $1.1 Volumetric Capture Lab, said Michael Grasso, director of digital innovation at Thunderbird.

“Through AI, we can have full on conversations through a digital avatar where a professor can speak directly to a student in English, Mandarin, Japanese — it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s much more effective than a Zoom class or a PowerPoint.”

VR is also infiltrating the entertainment world, according to Bola Akinrolabu, program manager for the XRts Initiative at Herberger Institute of Design and the ArtsMedia and Immersive eXperience Center in Mesa.

“The traditional way stories have been told is through film but that is changing very quickly,” Akinrolabu said. “We’re beginning to see stories told in virtual reality through film, games and other immersive experiences.

“I recently saw a student film on the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, and it really put me there in the moment. VR is making these types of stories more impactful, more pronounced and more efficient.”

“The VR learning experience at ASU will eventually trickle its way to elementary, middle and high school,” said Leah Lommel, chief operating officer at ASU Preparatory Academy.

“ASU Prep is already testing VR, including high school biology classes, at one of our K–8 schools called Pilgrim Rest in downtown Phoenix,” Lommel said. “We’re already seeing positive results. Students really enjoy the storytelling and have become more engaged. They now see themselves as problem-solvers, not just learning content.

“That’s a big step when it comes to learning.”

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