Youth Engagement in Virtual Reality with the Oculus Rift

Blog Posts ,Events ,Virtual Reality
December 7, 2014

Yesterday, I had the privilege to participate in a hack/code-a-thon at a local middle school as part of the Hour of Code initiative and thought that I’d share my love for Virtual Reality by bringing my Oculus Rift with me and doing demos during lunchtime. Although I suspected that a number of the kids would find the tech interesting, I was blown away with the overwhelmingly positive response that the kids had to virtual environments and how engaged they were with the Rift.

 The goal of the hackathon was fairly straightforward – get the kids excited about technology. The day started with registration and a short presentation about the importance of being a creator in today’s consumer-heavy world, and the students got off to a great start with one of them declaring proudly that he loved hacking:

“Pretty much anything that isn’t illegal. My favorite thing to hack are Nintendo ROMS – did you know it’s not illegal as long as you don’t distribute them? I like to hack Zelda games – my favorite games are the one I hack. I think the one I like the most is the one where I gave Link an AK-47 instead of a bow.”

A “human robot” competition followed, with the kids writing detailed instruction sets to make a PB&J, illustrating the importance of clear rules that they need to follow when interacting with computers. Hilarity ensued as the human robots made messes and an important lesson was taught about ambiguity. They then moved on to make “Flappy Bird” clones and soon it was lunch, which had apparently been the moment the kids had been waiting for.

You know that kids are excited about something when they skip food to wait in line for it.

I had a demo station set up at a table in the back of the room, and a few students who had seen the Oculus Rift demo listed on the schedule immediately crowded around after lunch was announced and formed a line to try out the Helix DK 2 roller coaster demo that I had loaded up. As they rotated through the short demo, giggling about camera placement and their ability to see into their 3D character’s body, I explained how the head tracking part of the Rift was used to change the angle they saw when they spun around and how the lens modified the screen in the Rift to make it appear immersive.

Helix

The demo setup:

  • 2014 Macbook Pro Retina, 13″ (16 GB, 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5, Intel Iris 1536 MB)
  • Oculus Rift Developer Kit 2
  • The Virtual Dutchmen Helix DK 2 Demo (Download)

I found that for the quick 2-minute demo, it was easiest to just stick my MBP into mirrored displays optimized for the Rift – the roller coaster demo launched in full screen and provided a natural stopping and starting point to switch the kids in and out. 50+ kids later, a few of the stuck around asking about other demos, so I loaded up Radial-G and let them each do a lap to see who could get the best times. (Personal best I’ve seen is a 2’39” lap from one of my friends – I was impressed with the kid who managed to come the closest at 2’48”).

Observing the kids was a really fascinating experience – they are the next generation of content creators, and not a single one of them mentioned feeling motion sickness, despite the fact that there wasn’t too much time to focus on getting the headset fitting perfectly. A good number of them were familiar with the idea of the Rift but hadn’t gotten a chance to play with it, so for just about all of them, it was their first time being able to try out a VR headset and many of them ran to their own computers to start building games as soon as they were finished, newly motivated to build their own games. A couple of them told me that their parents had gotten Google Cardboards, and I talked a little about the differences that mobile and desktop-based VR headsets had.

Overall, I’d say that the Oculus Rift was a huge success, but there are a few things I’d suggest doing differently if you find yourself planning a VR event that targets kids:

  • Make sure that you have an external monitor that is facing away from the kid actually in the Rift. Since I just had my laptop screen, there was a lot of crowding around the viewer and part of my job turned into herding them away from the person in the Rift to avoid anyone getting smacked. There was a lot of interest by the kids to watch what their friends were seeing in the headset, and an external monitor to mirror from would have been a great way to entertain the kids in line while keeping them safely away from the one in the headset.
  • Set up a good place to wait in line. To be fair, this may just be normal for kids who are middle school aged, but there wasn’t a line set up separately so the kid-formed lines often turned into a crowd around the computer (see above).
  • If you can swing it, have two different Rifts set up – or at least have two separate times scheduled for each demo you want to do. A few of the kids, after trying the Helix DK 2 demo, wanted to play with an interactive game, so I loaded up Radial G after most of them were done. This worked fairly well for the small group that hung around, but switching between that game and the Helix demo for those who didn’t want to race wasn’t efficient and eventually my computer started to show the strain from 4 hours of powering the Rift.
  • The best way to quick-fit the headset seemed to be having them hold the headset in place over their eyes where it was comfortable, after which I’d adjust the straps to hold it where they put it. Having them help with the placement resulted in very few complaints about blurriness.
  • Consider having a workshop about Unity or UE development for kids after they have a chance to try the Rift, even if it’s just to build a small 3D environment that uses the Oculus SDK for the camera. Many of the kids were excited to keep building their games, and it would have been great to see them try to make them Oculus-ready.

The Oculus Rift proved to be a fantastic tool for children to get immersed, and I was impressed with how quickly they adapted – not a single one had a complaint about it. A few of them repeatedly came over any time the line was short and jumped back in, and more than one of them announced that they thought it was the future of computing, claiming that “everyone’s just going to be sitting there with one of these on.”

I was glad to know that these particular students had access to zSpace, an educational tool that utilizes virtual and augmented reality, but it really got me thinking about ways that virtual reality technology could be brought into more classrooms across the US and globally. I would love to see more 3D-development content being taught and have started brainstorming ideas for making VR-hackathons kid-friendly and curriculum-friendly, but in the meantime, I just have to say: look for opportunities to share your love of VR with kids – even the most basic demos completely fascinate them, and these events can inspire a love of code as kids get older and begin to think of career paths. Their excitement is truly inspiring and encouraging that this is the next technological frontier to reach!

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