Aaron Walsh talks about his journey into virtual reality, and how Jaron Lanier and the Lawnmower Man eventually led him to starting the Immersive Education Initiative. He taught the first college course that took place within a virtual world back in 1995, and has been exploring how to use immersive technologies within an educational context ever since.

Walsh_Aaron_AvatarHe held the first Immersive Education Summit in 2006, and at this year’s Immersion 2014 they’ve expanded beyond education to include business and entertainment speakers as well. They offer a number of different iED certifications and resources to help show how immersive technologies could be used across the human experience.

In this interview, Aaron talks a bit about some of the strengths of immersive education, some principles of what to do and not to do when designing an immersive educational experience as well as how to cultivate serendipity and surprise to keep students engaged and excited to participate.

I was able to conduct 21 interviews at Immersion 2014, and I’ll be releasing these over the next three weeks here on the Voices of VR podcast. Here’s a preview of some of the upcoming topics:

  • Aaron Walsh – Best practices for Immersive Education
  • Richard Gilbert – Psychological connections to virtual world avatars
  • Melissa Carrillo – Smithsonian’s approach to sharing cultural heritage through virtual worlds
  • Morris May – The movement of Hollywood special effects into VR
  • Saadia Khan – Power of Avatars in Educational Virtual Worlds
  • Ross Mead – Body language for virtual avatars
  • Jackie Morie – History of VR & USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies
  • Bryan Carter – Immersing Learners in Harlem, NY during the 1920s Renaissance/Jazz Age
  • John Dionisio – Wearable Computing and the Reversal of Virtual Reality
  • Isabel Meyer – Smithsonian’s digital asset management & future of public domain access to digital artifacts
  • Kieran Nolan – Using virtual worlds for education
  • Mike Arevalo – VR Typing Trainer – Game Jam winner for Educational VR Hackathon
  • Daniel Green – Using Minecraft & other immersive software for education
  • Jane Crayton – Fully Immersive Dome Entertainment
  • Ryan Pulliam – VR for marketing
  • Ivan Blaustein – Orange County VR Meetup
  • Inarra Saarinen – Ballet Pixelle virtual world dance company
  • Philip Lunn – Nurulize’s approach to new forms of immersive entertainment in VR
  • Michael Licht – Immersive Journalism
  • Ka Chun Yu – “Full Dome” Video Virtual Reality (VR) Theaters: Exploiting Extreme Fields of View for The Benefit of Students
  • Terry Beaubois – Architecture in VR & Preparing for the Golden Age of Immersion

More details about the interview with Aaron are down below.

Reddit discussion here.


  • 0:00 – Immersive Education Initiative. Learned how to program, and students were interested in the game developer in classroom. Wanted to create virtual worlds and virtual scenes. Wanted to share experiences from Boston with his family in Colorado. In 1989, saw Jaron Lanier speak about VR at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He was a showed a working VR system where he was a lobster. Realized that VR could be the mechanism for sharing experiences with his family. Wrote down all of the software and hardware that he needed to learn in order to build a VR system. Succeeded in building an actual VR prototype system. Saw Lawnmower Man, and realized that experiencing information is much more powerful than reading and started him on the path towards immersive education. Got involved with VRML standards committee. Around 1995-1997, got tired of coming onto campus for teaching. Pitched to his dean to teach a class in a virtual world, and go permission to start the first immersive education class in a virtual world at Boston College. The first Immersive Educational Summit started in 2006.
  • 8:36 – Strengths of Immersive Education. Lots of different technologies. Virtual Worlds, VR, AR, immersive learning games. Depends on technology and what you’re trying to teach. Have the ability to visit places either in a group context or individually in an immersive environment where there is a lot higher level of engagement and participation. Much better than lecturing
  • 11:35 – Moving away from the broadcast lecturing model of learning, and more towards self-driven interactive learning. Put best of self into an immersive experience, and that could be more effective than the authentic version. Recorded an authentic presentation the first year, and second year he played back a pre-recorded version of the lectures. There’s a psychological barrier about what’s really authentic and what’s a real experience.
  • 14:39 – Most powerful immersive educational experiences. Charlie was a war veteran who experienced a lot of trauma and had doubts about participating in a virtual world classroom environment. Charlie was fully mobile and was more engaged than in the physical place. No physical indications of severe damage. Only needed his voice. He would have been lost in the traditional educational system.
  • 16:55 – Design principles of what to do and not to do. Don’t make a classroom or physical location. Pick a comfortable environment where everyone is happy to be there. Reconsider the setting of your education. Be comfortable to navigate and talk within a virtual world. Takes time and experience. Immersive Educational Initiative has a number of different certifications. Don’t just stand there. Keep moving around the virtual world. Learn to walk backwards and lead students through journeys.
  • 19:39 – Other locations for teaching? No standard ones. Important thing is to change locations for every class. Use rolling environments to build excitement and anticipation, and they want to come and be there. Explore them and share your favorites. Let them choose.
  • 21:38 – Every class is a field trip. How to cultivate serendipity and surprise? Happens naturally in synthetic environments if there are objects to interact with. You can make your gatherings open and public as well. You can script and let them happen. Construct environments specific to the lessons like space travel. Virtual watershed and entire ecosystem.
  • 23:29 – Initiative is a non-profit collaboration to show business, teachers, educators, entertainers — and a public training initiative that includes anyone who is interested in investigating how to immersive technologies could be used across the human experience. Broader range of target demographics, and starting to have more specific summit gatherings designed for academics for research and teaching techniques, arts and culture to preserve culture and convey culture, business and entertainment. There’s a lot of free resources.
  • 25:48 – Immersive education tools moving into the mainstream. When the dotcom bubble burst, then a lot the VR initiatives evaporated. Thought that around 98-99 that it was going to happen. Development has continued. Kickstarter help re-catalyzed the excitement from the 90s. Technology, computers, graphics techniques make graphics much better as well as a mobile technology and broadband network infrastructure that delivers the data. It didn’t disappear, it just went underground. Same visions and concepts, and the technology caught up.
  • 29:30 – New tools for game development and comparing the new to the old. Technology happens in generations and is a continuum. Their time will come and go. Traditional VR will be less and less, and then new consumer round will come around. Eventually the current VR tech will be phased out by the next generation of tech — most likely involving neural implants.
  • 31:46 – Potential of VR is all about human connection. Shorten the distance between people you care about and people you’re about to meet. Technologies will help us connect deeper and in ways that you can’t do today.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

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