For three years, Dubit has been engaged in research around children and virtual reality. Beyond basic questions of health and safety, engagement and enjoyment, UI and UX, it’s critical with this emerging medium to ask how children can learn to critique VR content. As with any medium, we should want young people across cultures to be critically literate — choosing and engaging thoughtfully across diverse VR content, but also to be content creators themselves.
Making builds an active connection between thinking and knowing. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2013)* wrote that humans have forever learned about the world through our hands.
While VR content creation is still a complex process, perhaps enabling young people to design their own VR headsets, with an eye toward enhancing the immersive experience, would spark critical thinking about how VR works. I tested this idea in my role as a Senior Tutor at London’s Royal College of Art, with postgraduate students, building from key findings in Dubit’s Children and Virtual Reality study.
One student created the headset (see image below) to go with a virtual roller coaster experience. Shifting the weight of the headset as the user moved forwards or backwards added a feeling of embodiment to the VR ride.
Another group made lenses for the headsets. Each lens was made from two circles cut from opposite sides of a plastic bottle. The pieces were glued together to create a concave shape and injected with water to form a lens. Although the lenses were of very inferior quality (+3.50 off-the-shelf reading lenses work much better!), their exploration demanded that they think about what VR is, how it works, and the importance of high-quality in stereoscopic vision.
I asked other doctoral students to take apart a simple headset, then to rebuild it without instructions, using cardboard, lenses, tape, glue, scissors and a smartphone. In doing so, they discovered the importance of fine measurement: how both inter-pupillary distance and the space between the lenses and the phone screen are critical to making the split screen image on the smartphone become a single, in-focus picture.
These same ideas could be undertaken with children, so that they are also able to understand VR better:
- Introduce children to VR content on a cardboard headset, then let them ask questions and propose theories about about how VR works;
- Show children a VR app outside the headset and ask how they think the two images on the smartphone become a single image, before letting them try it in the viewer and discussing how separating the eyes unites the two images;
- Allow children to explore the distance between the lenses and the phone screen to understand how it relates to the image moving in and out of focus;
- Let children make a headset using a freely available template (https://vr.google.com/cardboard/manufacturers), then challenge them to design one from scratch;
- Invite the children to imagine and invent a VR headset design that might alter their engagement with the content (e.g., the roller coaster example).
Particularly given the current hesitancy to recommend most virtual reality headsets for children’s use, it will take time for VR to filter into homes and schools. We know, however, that children will use it, and will love its immersive engagement. Therefore, we have not just a unique opportunity, but also a responsibility, to support young people as critical users and thoughtful creators, from the start.
*Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archeology, art and architecture. London: Routledge