Ryerson students develop ‘Magic School Bus’ app

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(Infographic by Deepika Shewaramani / Ryersonian Staff)

A group of fourth-year Ryerson University students is bringing The Magic School Bus to life by developing Canada’s first virtual, curriculum-based field trip.

Vessels VR is an immersive virtual reality application that will explore the blood vessels in the human body. It completely surrounds its users with a 3-D computer-generated world to step into.

The Vessels app will allow the user to take a narrated virtual tour of the cardiovascular system, and give them a close-up look inside models of the human heart, veins, arteries and capillaries.

Developed for the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset predicted to become ubiquitous in the next few years, the app is an RTA School of Media thesis project.

Traditionally, the final-year RTA School of Media productions are films, TV shows or web series, but this team of five students is embracing the newest trend in digital media technology.

The project is the brainchild of Josh Maldonado, executive producer and programmer, who single-handedly pitched his idea last month.RTA professors selected 12 out of 46 proposals this year and Maldonado ended up with a number of students wanting to be on his team. Maldonado says the growing hype around the Oculus Rift after its $2-billion acquisition by Facebook inspired him to create content for it.

“Most people are looking at it as a gaming platform, but we thought you could do so much more,” he says. “You could create entertainment content, but we’re focusing on educational. We decided the best and most practical experience would be a The Magic School Bus-style tour of the body.”

While virtual reality (VR) products for the 21st century generally focus on video games, its potential uses beyond the gaming world are quickly surfacing.
Earlier this month, Oculus VR’s CEO Brendan Iribe donated $31 million to the University of Maryland for virtual reality research. In a Q-and-A with the Chronicle, Iribe predicts Oculus Rift and VR will be “one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time.”

He’s not the only one with these expectations.

A study by the Human Interface Technology Lab (HITLab) at the University of Washington finds that students’ understanding and interest in learning improves through the use of immersive education-based VR.
HITLab says VR is a “significantly compelling environment” to teach and learn in because it allows for experiential, interactive and accessible education.

These ideas have been around since the late 1990s. VR projects have had a lot of attention over the last couple decades but not a lot of developments. Schools have also been slow to invest in new technologies.
Oculus Rift promises a new era and holds the potential for imaginative ways to learn because it’s supposed to be wearable, accessible and affordable.

The Vessels team uses a package called the Oculus Rift Development Kit, which contains the headset and required software. Along with some other 3-D modelling and developing tools, the project makes use of Ontario’s biology curriculum, available for free online.

Ashika Theyyil, the project’s producer and finance lead, says she thinks Vessels and future VR apps will be successful because they bring the field trip to the classroom.
“To actually be in a different world, without even leaving, is really cool,” she says. “Even if you go to the science centre, you’re reading things and you’re not really completely immersed in the experience, which is the best part of this.”

Vessels joined Ryerson’s storytelling incubator, the Transmedia Zone (TMZ), and presented at a Toronto VR meetup earlier this month.
The TMZ only gives Vessels resources like workspace and interns, so Theyyil says to keep a look out for its Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in the near future.

Theyyil, Maldonado and the rest of their team will be launching Vessels in early 2015.

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