#53: Aaron Walsh on best practices for creating immersive educational experiences in virtual reality + Preview of 21 interviews from Immersion 2014

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

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.018] Aaron Walsh: My name is Aaron Walsh. I'm the director of the Immersive Education Initiative. We're here in Los Angeles for Immersion 2014, which unbelievably is our ninth year of conferences. I personally began my journey on VR a long time ago before there was VR. I began programming when I was just a little kid. And my father had taken me to a college course, sat me down with a bunch of college kids, and started to learn how to program. In the back of the room, there was one antisocial kid making video games. He was programming the video games. And at the end of each class, everybody kind of huddled around to see what he was doing, what he was making. And to me, and I think to everybody there, it was just, this is fantastic. This is the sort of stuff I want to do. So that got me on the journey. That was about 12, 11 or 12 years old, I guess. And from that point on, I was programming. And I was programming with the intention of graphics. What attracted me at that moment was the graphic quality. He was doing stuff with graphics that were better than anybody else in the room and things I hadn't seen. So I'd spend a lot of time focusing on the computer graphics side of things. That was really my focus. I would sit. in my living room and you know I was just a teenager at that point probably 13 14. I'd look around at things and I would try to figure out if I wanted to make this lamp how would I program it. So I started really back in the early early days when I first got exposed to programming thinking about how I could construct virtual environments, virtual scenes. Flash forward many years, I was 18 years old in Boston for the first time. My family was out in Colorado and I was lonely. I started thinking this is the place I need to be here in Boston and I can't go home very often and what I was really wanting to do, probably the biggest thing I wanted to do is just share these experiences with my family. And there was no way to do that. There were no phones, cell phones at that point. There weren't even cameras that you could take a decent picture with quickly, get it, and mail it. There was no way of sharing experience. So, you know, this was one of the things that was bothering me. It was troubling me. I knew I was going to be here in Boston. I knew I was going to probably spend the majority of the rest of my life here, but I had an entire family back in Colorado. I was missing them and wished that I could share some of these amazing things that I was seeing, these experiences. In around that time, within those first couple of years, I think it was probably 1989, maybe 1990, but I think it was 89, I went to a very small presentation. It wasn't even an exhibit by Jaron Lanier. And most folks who know Jaron know that he is really the father of virtual reality. It was at the Institute of Contemporary Art. There were probably 15, maybe 20 fold-out steel chairs, real uncomfortable. I think we might have been in the basement of the Institute. I don't know. But he got up and started saying, this is virtual reality. This is what we're doing. And he had a working system. And he showed a lobster that he was the lobster. And he walked around this environment, this synthetic environment, and he talked about how you can inhabit these. bodies virtually and you can explore virtual environments and I thought this is it. This is it. This is what I need. I thought this technology with quality graphics I could just walk around and I can record everything in true 3D and that I could then have my family and friends, they could experience it and not just see it. It wasn't enough to be a picture. They could be part of the scene with me. We could walk around it together. So if I saw something that was interesting in Boston that I really wanted to share, I could just flick a switch on my glasses. That was the idea. And that would be shared back with my family in Colorado. They could be present and we could talk and look at things together. That was really what got me on the journey. So I left the Institute of Contemporary Art on fire. I knew right then this is the area that I was going to dedicate all of my working hours and all of my personal hours to. And I got back that night and on the back of a tissue box, it was just a standard tissue box, wrote down all of the things that I needed to learn, the programming languages I felt I needed to learn, the techniques I felt I needed to learn, the hardware that I needed to master, in order to really do this. And I started. About a year later, through a colleague of mine at Boston College, I was at that point running the Advanced Technology Center, and my colleague said, you know, we can build one of these VR systems ourselves. And I said, I am so in it. Let's do this. Let's build it. I was running an ATC, the Advanced Technology Center, which was supposed to show the university all kinds of advanced technology. And the most advanced technology we were showing at the time was color printing. So it wasn't too advanced. It didn't have much place on campus. So we just went to my basement in West Newton, Massachusetts, and started to build a VR system. We used a Nintendo Power Glove for input. So we had hand control. We worked with a variety of different headsets. scuba mask and put two lenses in each one. You know, we rigged it together and got it. And the moment that it worked, the moment that the game that we were playing, that we weren't playing the game, we were the game. We were the spaceship going down the maze. It was electric. We were dancing around like mad in that basement, jumping and swinging and leaning forward and making our bodies move faster to the virtual world. I was on it. I was on it before, but now it can be done. It wasn't just an idea. On top of that, the next thing that happened was I went to see with a bunch of colleagues from work, went to see Lawnmower Man. And there was a scene in Lawnmower Man that really resonated with me. I think they looked like little cycles. They were just kind of riding them around. They pitched forward and rode around on them. And there was all this information coming at them in this virtual world. And it just struck me. I said, this is it. This is rich, heavy information. You can present it in a way that can't be digested by reading or watching or listening. You're experiencing it and you can take in magnitudes, orders of magnitudes of rich, deep information experientially in a way that you just can't do by the traditional ways of learning. And that's what got me on the road to immersive education. So I began working around that point in international standards. I worked in virtual reality. The old timers in the group will know virtual reality modeling language, VRML. I came on board that standards activity and began working, sharing some of the digital media aspects of VRML. I worked with the MPEG group, Motion Picture Experts group, which does DVD. At the time, that's what they were most known for. If you had DVD capability in your CD player or on your television or over your internet, that was MPEG. But they were also doing 3D. So I worked with the MPEG group as a liaison for their 3D. And I spent a fair amount of time immersed in three-dimensional virtual reality at that point. And they reached a point Around about 95, 96, 97 really is when it hit. I reached a point where I was getting tired of coming onto campus to teach. It was an hour commute for me. And I went and spoke to Father James Woods who ran the Woods College of Advancing Studies. Now it's the Woods College. It has since, he has retired. I went to him and I sat down, and he's a Jesuit priest, one of the longest-running deans in American education. Sat down with him, suit for me, and he called it his suit, but he had his collar on. And I said, here's, you know, I think we could do this. This is what I'd like to do. I'd like to take the students off campus, let them stay at home, let them stay in the dorms, and I'd like to be off campus as well. And what we'll do is we'll meet in a virtual environment, and we'll meet in a three-dimensional synthetic environment, I'll teach my classes. I was teaching Java programming at that point in the mid-90s. I'll teach my classes in these virtual environments. And we won't come to campus. We won't use the space. We'll all be at home. And what do you think? And I'm thinking, it's a long shot. Let's see how this goes. He closed his eyes. And anybody that's met with him knows that frequently, if you're talking for too long, he'll close his eyes. And you're not sure if he's asleep, listening, or not. You're not sure. I assume he thought about it for a moment, opened up his eyes and said, do it. And that was the beginning of immersive education on Boston College campus. But ironically, it wasn't on campus. It was all off. And that's how immersive education began. Several years later, it was apparent that there were a number of individuals doing something similar or wanted to know how this was being done because word was getting out. And the initiative was begun. Our first conferences began in 2006. And we're here today in 2014 and have spread internationally with chapters around the world and conferences going every couple of months now.

[00:08:35.850] Kent Bye: And so what are some of the key components of immersive education in terms of what's different from physical co-located education?

[00:08:42.577] Aaron Walsh: Right, so there are a lot of differences depending on the technologies that you use. There's a range of technologies in immersion. There is what I would consider the classic virtual world. You step into a virtual world and you're present with other people, you have a co-present experience, a shared experience. Then there's completely different technologies, augmented reality, mixed reality, learning games, immersive video games, those all count as well. It's a very large body of technologies. So when you ask what is the advantages, you have to be more specific generally about what am I trying to teach and what technology will I use. I'll talk for a moment about sort of the classic virtual worlds. One of the things that virtual worlds give you is the ability to be present in a shared experience, in an environment that is reflective of the learning that is supposed to happen. For example, if I'm teaching American history and I'm sitting in a class and I'm showing some slides on a screen or I'm showing some video, The students are not immersed in American history. They're hearing you talk about American history, and they're watching some video clips, and it's up to them to imagine what it might be like. And as educators, we know that step between presenting information to a learner and them absorbing it and understanding it properly is very, very difficult. You lose a lot of people in that gap. What immersive education allows you to do is put them on the front lines of the Civil War, engaged in a pitched battle with the actual technology at the time. Cannons, muskets, fighting for your life, trying to win for your side. So you can immerse them in the experience and have them for a period of time, while they're immersed, believe that this is it, I'm in it. And the higher quality graphics coming along, and they're finally here, that are photorealistic. It's like high-definition film happening around you. So that is one of the primary advantages of immersive education. It allows you to visit places, see things, do things, either alone or together, in immersive environments that give you the sense of being there. That's the primary advantage. The other advantage is simply engagement. We have students, we've done lots of work with K-12 students, who are at risk. Students who just aren't coming to class, and if they are, they're not tuned in, they're not there. And one of the things that immersive education technologies allow is the ability for a teacher who's presenting the same basic material, but it's in a format that the kids get, they're excited about, they want to be on the keyboard or they want to be in the virtual world, they want to be in it. They want to participate. And when you have that, you have an engagement factor. As most teachers will tell you, if the student is not engaged, their mind isn't active and they aren't learning. So that simple act of using these technologies to present something that may be no different from what you've been lecturing about can change the way a student perceives the material because they're engaged. Those are some of the primary, I'd say engagement and the immersion in the experience are the two major areas.

[00:11:34.734] Kent Bye: And so in the typical educational model, you have one teacher, you know, one to many, one person broadcasting information to people. And so it seems like in the immersive technologies, it's a little bit more interactive, self-driven, and perhaps even teacherless. And so how do you see that sort of unfolding and evolving?

[00:11:50.790] Aaron Walsh: Yeah, that's exactly where I hope it goes. One of the things that I felt early on when I was lecturing at the university is that each week I stood up and I regurgitated. And I tried to put as much energy into that particular act as I could. But some weeks it was great for me and the students, and some weeks I was off. Some weeks I was sick. Some weeks I was tired. The very best of me was only available to a certain percentage of the students that took my courses. What the immersive education experience allows me to do is put the best of me into a virtual experience. to actually craft the very best of what I have to impart. The information, the techniques, everything that I have, I can make immersive. I can construct this immersive experience. And if that's the case, the student can learn from a virtual experience as opposed to what we would consider the authentic experience. But where is the authenticity? Is it the physical presence of me in a classroom? Or is it what I'm saying, what I'm doing, what I'm showing you, whether it's me live or it's a virtual rendition of me, what is the authentic? And early on, I tested this out with my students. I would have, in these virtual worlds, I would have students who are the first week, it was really me. They heard my voice, I was talking live, I had my avatar, we were walking around and I was telling them all the things that they needed to know about whatever subject we were talking about at the time. I record that audio part, and then I would just play it back for another group of students next semester, the exact same audio recording. And I didn't have to talk at all during that class. I just pressed play, had it come out of my avatar, and I had the avatar moving around and acting as if it was me. I was on standby to answer questions if something broke. or if there were questions that were out of line with what was going on. But for the most part, I spent a three-hour lecture each week not having to lecture, imparting information. Why say it twice if you can do the best if you want? And the interesting thing about that was those are some of my highest-rated classes, because I was there for the learning experience to make sure if they had questions, I could answer them live. But the very best of me was there as well, pre-recorded earlier, but they didn't know it. Now, if they had known that, and they knew it was an audio recording of me, and they knew that it was an avatar that was programmed to walk around like me, I can guarantee you that they would have felt that they had a lesser education. However, they didn't know that. And as a result, I got great reviews. So there's this psychological barrier that has to be crossed where the authentic has to be questioned. What is really authentic? What is the real experience? And if it is physical, why are so many people engaged in digital technology and losing themselves in it for experiences?

[00:14:36.815] Kent Bye: And what's been one of the most powerful or potent immersive educational experiences that you've seen that is really resonating with students?

[00:14:44.834] Aaron Walsh: Yeah. I will tell you without a question, it was Charlie. I was teaching at the Iraq War, actually, during that whole period. He had come back. And semester was just starting. Everybody, this is when they first, you know, very first class, we meet in person. So I let everybody know, I'm real, you're real, but we're going to be virtual next time we meet. He sat in the class, and he was engaged and chatty. And after class, he came up, and he showed me the holes in his head. And he said, I don't think I can do this. He said, I experienced a great deal of trauma. And I need to see you. I need to make eye contact with you. And I need to be here in this class with other people. I don't think I can be in a virtual world. And I talked to him for about an hour after that class, and then I had a couple of telephone calls with him. I remember sitting on the Charles River, the channels there, right across from the Children's Museum, having long conversations on a weekend with Charlie, saying, Charlie, you can do this. Just give it a shot. Come in. Don't worry about it. As much as you're worrying, you can do this. And what ended up happening, the most powerful thing to me, is Charlie showed up. And Charlie took to it in a way that I wouldn't have imagined. He was fully mobile. He was engaging in a way that he wasn't in the prior physical class. He was there and he would nod and he would occasionally say something, but he became an immediate leader. in the virtual environment by the presence of his avatar and his voice. He no longer had any form of physical indications that he had had severe brain damage. He no longer had a body that looked like it had been through an Iraq war. He was a fit, healthy avatar like everybody else in the room. All he needed was his voice and the ability to move it. And he not just participate, he ended up being a leader in that class in an environment that he didn't think that he could actually psychologically take that step to get into. So for me that was probably the most powerful. Someone who we would have lost in the education system in general ended up becoming immersed and engaged in leading in a way that he physically absolutely could not have done otherwise.

[00:16:55.055] Kent Bye: And if people are starting to develop these immersive education experiences, what would you say were some fundamental design principles of things to do and to not do?

[00:17:03.682] Aaron Walsh: Don't make classrooms. Nobody wants this. I don't want to sit in a classroom on a sunny day in the real world, and students don't either. Do not make a classroom. Don't make a physical structure. Start off by imagining, if I'm going to tell you a story, that's my job as a teacher. I'm going to tell you a story, and I'm going to give you some information, and I'm going to connect that story with some real detail. Where are we going to start that story? Let's start it in a place that everybody's comfortable. Let's walk along the beach. Let's walk up a mountain. Let's fly into the clouds. Let's start in a comfortable environment that everybody's just happy to be there. That's the starting point. So first, don't spend any money or time building buildings. Get rid of them. We have them because we used to need them. We really don't need them in the virtual space. Reconsider the setting of your education. Then, if you're just getting into these technologies, you need to become really comfortable with how to navigate in these environments, how to talk, and how it's fluid. We don't think much as teachers. We don't think much when we walk into a lecture hall or into a room. You flick on the lights and you go. That's natural. That kind of fluidity takes time, and it takes some practice and experience. So to address that, the Immersive Education Initiative has a range of certification programs for teachers. You can self-certify at no cost. If your school requires you to have an actual bona fide certificate, we'll certify you. Immersiveeducation.org has a range of them being developed so that teachers have the skill sets that they need. So you need first to consider the environment. but you also have to master the medium. You can get started very easily with about 10 hours of hands-on training, so you know some of the tricks of the trade. There are lots of very simple but powerful tricks in order to engage the students. The single most important thing you should not do when you go into a virtual world is stand there. That's the killer. All the teachers that started going into virtual worlds to begin with, it was just an effort to get in the virtual world, but they went back to lecturing. And the students are all standing around, and half the avatars are on auto-sleep, so they head tips and starts to zzzz, And you see these little C, Z, Z bubbles coming out of the top of their heads. So don't stand. That's a little simple trick. Those are the types of things that we teach you as an educator. Don't stand. We teach you how to walk backwards and lead the class through journeys. Lots of little things that take years and years and years to figure out on your own, we put into certification programs that you can just self-certify on. Get to know the technology. Rethink your classroom, and in fact, abandon the classroom. Put it in the authentic learning environment. Consider what you're teaching and build that environment or use an environment like that. And if you don't have that environment, take it to a fun place, a beach, a mountaintop, the clouds.

[00:19:39.485] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, I know that there's the VR typing trainer that's here where you're in a Tron environment. And one of the most popular experiences from the Oculus Rift from 2013 was the Titans of Space, where you're literally just taking a tour through the solar system. So I could see how taking a journey and getting out of that normal construct of physical buildings could make sense. But when you say fly into the clouds or walk up a mountain, what are some of the standard scenes that you have where you're teaching people or things that work really well in that way?

[00:20:09.287] Aaron Walsh: Well, there are so many different virtual environments, there's no standard. So one of the things that I do with my students fairly regularly is just change the setting every single class. So every class, they know we're going to meet in a different place. So we might start off in a beach and we might walk along and see crabs skittering around and try to avoid them as the tide comes up. And then we might just spend that class on the beach. And then the next class, we might go to the mountaintop. And then the next class, we might sit on top of a palm tree. And the next class, we might be at the bottom of the ocean. So for me, that's another one of those simple techniques that each class, the students, when they are engaged in those, what I call, rolling environments, every time we have a class that's a different place, you'll see the chatter because we have group discussion lists outside of class. You'll see them say, I can't wait to see what's next. I wonder what we're going to do. Where do you think he's going to show us next? They're looking forward to coming to class, which in an online distance learning environment, which is really what this is, it's just using a hyper-advanced technology, In an environment where the student is not showing up in a physical location but they have to be at their computer a certain time and nobody's making them. Having them want to come at that time and they do show up early to socialize, it's a big step. So there are no standard stock environments. There are literally thousands and thousands of virtual environments to choose from. My recommendation would be as an educator, explore them and start putting together some of your favorites and share them with your students. And also, have your students choose them for the next week. You can engage them. Don't just show them. Let them do a little touring and find out where they want to be taught the next week.

[00:21:37.992] Kent Bye: Yeah, it just makes me think that every class is a field trip to somewhere new, and that creating elements where they have anticipation, but also elements of surprise, it sounds like that is a key component to have that sense of discovery and also surprise. I don't know if you've found how can you create these moments of serendipity and surprise in these virtual environments.

[00:21:57.168] Aaron Walsh: Well, they happen very naturally. The environments themselves are synthetic environments. And if they have items inside them that people can interact with, these serendipitous moments just happen. Also, you can elect to have other people come in. You can make them public or private. And if you make it public, you might have somebody. I had somebody showing the students and said, OK, we've been private so far. Now we're going to be public. Let's let anybody into the area. And within a few minutes, somebody dressed in a cat suit with furry handcuffs on, came into the classroom and started doing push-ups in the middle of the circle that we were talking in. So there's a serendipitous moment you're not going to find on campus. There's all kinds of things that happen. You can script them. They can happen naturally like that did. You can have also we've been talking to sort of these open environments where you can just teach if you don't have a pre-created one but we have plenty of environments where they're constructed for that particular learning experience. We have virtual environments for space travel where students become the astronauts and they learn about the spacesuits and pressurization oxygen levels and all that. We also have, with our collaboration with the Smithsonian, we have a virtual watershed where they're learning about ecosystems. So they're in the virtual watershed looking at the crabs, understanding the ecosystem of how that entire watershed actually operates. So it doesn't have to just be a sort of a disconnected virtual experience. It can be directly connected to the learning objectives at the time. And you can create objects and content inside of those environments that are designed to be serendipitous for those who stumble upon them.

[00:23:30.099] Kent Bye: It does sound like you have a number of different initiatives with the Immersive Education Initiative. And so maybe you could talk about what is the overall intention of what you're trying to do and how that plays out in terms of the specific programs that you're doing.

[00:23:41.929] Aaron Walsh: Absolutely. So the initiative itself, it's a nonprofit collaboration. It's international. And it is comprised of educators, business people, teachers, students, and increasingly entertainers, people who are using it as a medium to entertain. And within our core has always been having our group show teachers and business trainers, people who use the technologies for the purposes of imparting information, teaching and training. But it was not set up to be just for teachers and educators. It was set up as a public education initiative to evangelize and to teach how these technologies can be used across the human experience. And so increasingly at the conferences we've had business people appearing, we've had entertainers coming, we've had scientists, we've had young learners, we've had a range of people. In order to address that we have started to have dedicated conferences for those interests. We now have a researchers conference for academics who are interested in the research in this space and for teachers who are interested in the teaching techniques and how to apply them inside the classroom. We have a arts and culture conference which is dedicated to exploring these technologies and understand these technologies in the context of the arts and how they can be applied to preserve culture and to convey these cultural experiences. We will be having a dedicated business conference and entertainment conference as well. So the initiative is a very large umbrella, just like the technologies underneath it. The initiative itself is an education organization. Our job is to give this technology away to the extent that we can. Most of what we have is freely available. Lots of it increasingly becomes commercial because it's so advanced that you can only do it with commercial technology. But our job is to get these technologies into the hands of the people that need them, whether they're teachers, business executives, entertainers, scientists, students, or just the casual end user. So education is a part of that, and that's been our real focus over the last six or seven years, but it's just part of the larger picture.

[00:25:46.463] Kent Bye: And it seems like we're on the cusp of a virtual reality revolution with the Oculus Rift and a lot of these immersive technologies that are really crossing the chasm into the mainstream. And so I'm curious, from your perspective, how you've seen that jump from being on the leading edge of the innovators and early adopters and then going and moving into more of the mainstream.

[00:26:06.669] Aaron Walsh: Yeah, it's exciting. It's exciting and it's been too long of a wait. There was a major shift in how everything was happening when the internet.com bubble burst. Just about every virtual reality company that I knew of and every independent developer went out of business. Their funds disappeared. So we were at this brink at around the year 2000 and suddenly the dot-com bubble burst. The economy changed and the funding for the companies and the workforce in order to get to the next step, which was just starting to happen, evaporated. A lot of what we're seeing with the Oculus Rift and with the innovative forms of input body motion, those were all explored much earlier and they were in the process of being commercialized at that point. And so were the virtual world technologies, simulators, etc. But it disappeared. You know, the billion plus odd dollars or however much it was just evaporated almost overnight. And so those of us who've been working on it for a long time thought around 1998-99, right here, it's going to happen. And then it flattened completely. And as a result of it flattening, there's been this stasis where the development's gone on. There's a passionate number of people who've continued. And then as the economy began to recover, funds were put in, and beautiful funding sources such as Kickstarter were put in place to allow people to get funding without professionals behind it. And that recatalyzed that excitement that we all had in the late 90s. And so it's kind of like we've been asleep for a decade. It's sort of this, oh, okay, it's back again, and it's real again, and there's funding behind it again. And finally, the technologies are refined to a point where they're commercial grade. That's another big step. In all those intervening lean years where we were really waiting to see what's going to happen, the technology improved and improved and improved. The computers became orders of magnitude faster and more capable. The computer graphics techniques for visualization, the actual algorithms and the code became many orders of magnitude more capable. Those two things combined made for visualization that just wasn't possible 10 years ago. On top of that, you now have a mobile infrastructure with 3G and 4G and a broadband infrastructure in developed nations that gets all that data across the pipe in time. So it was crushing to everybody in the industry at the time that the dot-com bubble burst, because everybody that had been so excited and working so hard for that prior decade was ready to go, and it evaporated. It just took a little more time, didn't disappear. It went basically underground and it wasn't so visible. It just continued to grow and mature. And as it grew and matured, the base technologies, the infrastructure that was required, increased as well. And so we emerged in 2014. with the same basic visions, the same basic concepts. It's startlingly similar. There's not a lot of new in the ideas. There's not a lot of new in the concepts. What's new is that commercial-grade technology running on commercial-grade networks with commercial-grade software. That's what's new.

[00:29:28.174] Kent Bye: Well, I think the other thing that's new is that you have a whole range of game developers, gamers, and a whole other new wave of people who have been working with programs like Unity and Unreal Engine, who have been creating these 3D virtual worlds, but now it's plugging right into the technology. And so there does seem to be a split at this point between the new consumer-grade VR and the old VR. And so maybe, how do you see that split between the old and the new?

[00:29:56.372] Aaron Walsh: Sure, just think of it in terms of human generations. So we have parents, grandparents, and those who are no longer with us. That's the way technology moves. You are your own individual as a human. You stand on your own, but at the same time you're here by dint of effort and perished lives. It takes a long time to get to this stage just as a human being. Technology is no different. We create it and we refine it. We retire some of it to the graveyard forever. Some of it we keep alive and we polish and do our best to refine. It's the same thing. So what we're seeing here is a continuum of technologies and some of them are still vibrant and alive. Others have just disappeared. Their time came and their time went. And with the new range of technologies that we have, their time is just now. And we'll start to see the tapering off of some of the, you know, it's been 20 years. It's natural. We'll start to see a lessening of the use of what I, and I even call it myself when you ask me, I call it traditional VR, right? The traditional VR experience. I think we'll see less and less of that. It'll still have a place, but the newer technologies and the newer applications of them, It's natural, they should take center stage and in time those will start to fade as well because in about another decade or so there will be another round, mark my words, there will be another round of innovation that most likely will have to do with implants and neural connections. And so at some point people are going to say, why in the world would you wear something on your face? Why would you put equipment on you? So that's coming too. So all these things that we're excited about today They're gonna be grandparents soon right now. They're fresh in there. It's exciting. But you know enough time will pass they'll eventually be the old dusty technologies and Our kids grandkids and the technology that they're using will be fresh

[00:31:45.721] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential for what these immersive technologies like virtual reality could provide for society and for education?

[00:31:54.182] Aaron Walsh: Sure. I think it's all about connecting. I think it's all about the human connection. What good is a nice formal education if you don't have anybody to share it with and if you don't have anybody to pass it on to? So at the end of the day, it comes back to me, the reason I got involved, is about the human connection. In the same way that telephones, think about what life was like before we had a telephone. If you moved, you had letters. And before you had letters, you didn't have anything. So I think it's all about shortening the distance between the people you care about and the new people you're going to meet. So I think it's all about communication. Everything else on top of that, those are applications that add to our human experience. But I think it's all about human interaction, human connections. And I think that this range of technologies that we're in today and those that are coming forward are going to make it easier for us to connect more personally and in a deeper level and I think it will improve our human condition by making it possible for us to connect with the people in the ways we just can't today.

[00:32:53.025] Kent Bye: Great, well thanks so much. Thanks Kent, appreciate it.

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