Gerhardt Troan (left) and Matthew Armstrong checked out some of U-Connect’s virtual reality headsets. The students are working on software for the virtual world.

Langley students take on virtual education

Blending the virtual and the real is the aim of a new Langley education project.

Students at Langley’s U-Connect program have been building robots and writing computer code for several years, but this year they’re going into virtual reality.

Under the direction of teacher John Harris, students are writing educational software, and plan a game that will merge multiple disciplines to teach kids about math and language at the same time.

Students are now transitioning into working in virtual reality environments from the type of programming they’ve done before, said Matthew Armstrong.

Armstrong and classmate Gerhardt Troan are both enjoying the new challenge.

“It’s very enjoyable, but at the same time it’s kind of mentally exhausting,” said Troan.

Harris said the virtual reality development program started this year. The PAC raised about $11,000 for the project.

The program has three phases in three media.

First, the students will develop interactive Android apps for the Google Cardboard device, a very simple system that literally uses cardboard boxes and cellphones to create the VR device. Students are also experimenting with the Samsung Gear system, a more sophisticated version of the same phone-based technology.

The second phase will see students develop for the Oculus Rift, one of the most popular of the emerging virtual reality devices.

In the third phase, Harris said he’s hoping to have the students be approved as beta developers for Microsoft’s Hololens technology, which can superimpose virtual reality images on real-world environments, a system sometimes called “augmented reality.”

One of the main goals of the program isn’t just to create software, it’s to merge the virtual and the real worlds.

“Our philosophy is to turn students from consumers of technology to creators of technology,” said Troan.

The students are working on the early stages of a game that will use mathematics and mythology, a project that will pull in other departments at U-Connect and its host Simonds Elementary in Langley City.

The hope is to have something that will be an actual product by the end of the year.

Troan described the Hololens technology as a kind of real-world version of the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Harris said that while the program is centered on computers, one of the goals is to get students away from just staring at a screen.

Using 3-D printers and internet-connected physical objects, the project will eventually allow students to, for example, print out a model car chassis and then design an engine for it, superimposing the engine over the chassis in VR and making adjustments to the design.

A 3-D printer, a laser cutter, and other devices for making physical objects are part of the future of the project.

“Something happens to a child’s sense of competence and confidence and life goals when they look at a piece of software and go ‘I could make that’,” said Harris.


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