There has been a lot of hype in VR spaces about the Oculus Quest, and Quest 2, and its impact on the market. It is generally accepted, based on a great number of articles and postings, that the Quest has had a significant and positive effect on the VR market. I agree with this assessment, and submit that this is a terrific device, has a fantastic price, and is a watershed moment for both gaming and entertainment. However, such well-deserved praise must end when considering education.
One swallow does not a summer make
Aristotle (384 B.C.E. – 322 B.C.E.) famously remarked,
„One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly, one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.“
The inferred meaning is that one event, such as the arrival of a single bird, does not indicate a trend, such as the arrival of summer. So, too, for virtual reality. One well-made, well-received VR device that is optimized for gaming and entertainment cannot reasonably be conferred the status of “the answer for education.” For that, we require a deeper dive. And within that deeper dive, we unfortunately come up against several roadblocks, with two of those blockers being severe.
For an edtech solution to be accepted into the realm of education, it must be free of entanglements with respect to usability and privacy and offer up a reasonable set of content pieces or add enough educational value to be feasible, practical and desirable. The Oculus Quest offers none of these.
Like it’s little brother before it (the Oculus Go), the Quest is hamstrung by a number of issues which hurt all chances of mass deployment into educational institutions. In an article edited by edtech futurist Eric Hawkinson, posted in the summer of 2019, there are at least 14 reasons why the Go was not suitable for education.
Without getting into each point, it’s notable to highlight a couple. The Go had to be paired with a phone to enable it to work. How can that possibly be an option in a school with many dozens of headsets? Content had to either go through the Oculus Go Store, which is being shut down at this very moment, or side-loaded through an odd “Developer Mode” access, which is extremely difficult when dealing with large numbers of headsets. Even something as mundane as printing the serial number of that VR device on the headstrap, which can easily be mixed up with other headsets, is a troubling and odd choice to make. Those serial numbers are very important when bulk loading content onto a number of devices at a time, which is the only way they can be managed by school IT departments, and once again shows a lack of understanding of the needs from within schools.
Of course, there is also the elephant in the room… Facebook. The decision to force patronage to Facebook in order to use a VR device is most certainly an interesting business strategy, which may work in the field of entertainment, gaming and other single-user pursuits; but, education is a collective experience which requires a different approach. This mandatory attachment to a for-profit, social media behemoth, currently facing antitrust litigation [ Facebook Halts Sale of Rift & Quest in Germany Amid Regulatory Concerns ] should be reason enough to seriously question its inclusion into an academic institution. This does not negate its use for research, for fun activities put on by different departments, and other such isolated activities. However, if viewed as a mainstay of the educational process, a step back to re-examine would only be prudent.
Such an action, to force users to connect to a platform that many have grown weary of, shows that this was a commercial decision and not one made in the best interest of the user. Convenience is a lazy and insulting reason. This may be acceptable to individual users, but security and privacy issues render this a problematic option for education.
“What happens if Facebook’s history of user manipulation comes to VR? Emotional manipulation within the VR operates on greater extremes,” suggests Professor Hawkinson. “Ads are coming to VR and driven by behavioral telemetry collected from your VR use, including your body measurements, your voice, and possibly the objects and sounds in your home. This is a whole new level of data collection to support ads.”
As clearly stated within their Supplemental Oculus Data Policy:
- We collect your physical features and measurements including hand size during hand tracking
- Your voice, hand, and body data will be analyzed and identified
- We use this information to provide measurement, analytics, and other business services (including ads)
- You give permission to appear in and with ads without compensation
This does, of course, come in under the guise of “anonymous data.” However, in a study published in October 2020, researchers found that “Out of a pool of 511 participants, the system identifies 95% of users correctly when trained on less than 5 min of tracking data per person.” [ Personal identifiability of user tracking data during observation of 360-degree VR video ] The appearance of anonymity is about all you can expect as unnamed users can be properly identified in almost every case.
As Hawkinson goes on to note, Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that some have come to call “shadow contact information.”
Even with all of this in mind, I’d like to set aside the issue of whether or not Facebook is appropriate for the classroom. If as an educational institution you are making the decision to use the device based on your thoughts toward the possible risks involved with Facebook, I would submit that you are still missing the point. It all must hinge on content, and whether your educational needs are being met by what is offered on that device. If content creators are shying away from mass deployment of educational materials on this device, it is logical to surmise that the reason why this is happening is not because of an unwillingness to go where the market is leading, but skepticism as to whether or not a business strategy can rest on the shoulders of a company (Oculus) which may be shut out of education. And this brings us back to the Oculus Go as the most relevant historical example of a device made for individual use, yet was also thrust upon the educational community. And what we learned from the Oculus Go sounds strikingly familiar to the debates happening now with respect to the Oculus Quest.
The Oculus Go was a terrific device made for individual use and later brought into education. Though it featured good graphics, high ease of use, a nice compact and comfortable design and an attractive price, it suffered from a number of not-easily-identified problems, such as:
- Its connection to Facebook
- The need of a phone to set up each device (mass deployments would be practically impossible)
- Removable headstraps with device identifiers on them, which can get mixed in schools
- The need to work through the Go Store for content
- No subscription service support on the Go Store, meaning that libraries of constantly increasing numbers of modules could not appear in the device
- No ability for the school to create their own VR modules and use them on the device
- A very cumbersome process to add 3rd party content
- Limited device storage, controllers that burn through batteries very quickly, and so on
The truly odd part of this story is that as a company, Veative may well offer the most extensive and complete solution available (even today) on the Go. Full disclosure, I have worked with Veative since its inception, as shown in my LinkedIn profile. As expressed in a number of communications sent to Oculus Education in 2018, this has very little to do with Veative content playing on the Go (which we do well), but with the ever-increasing number of issues related to education. It is not the same as dealing with individual users and in all good conscience we couldn’t recommend the Go to our global customer base.
Having said all of that, if your school has gone ahead and bought a number of Oculus Go headsets and you fear they will collect dust, get in touch with Veative as we have the means of generating productive use out of those devices. As often mentioned, we are teachers ourselves and we hate to see anything like this go to waste. But don’t get caught a second time. Though the Quest is a wonderful device, thought must go into what you will do with your VR devices, and not just into the device itself. Consider the picture at the top of this page. Would the educational value of having a second language student navigating through an airport be appreciably better if it happens inside the Quest, or would any device capable of running that material be a better option? It’s worth thinking about, and that is the point.
In closing, we need to heed words not from the time of Aristotle, but credited to Spanish philosopher George Santayana who warned that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Known Issues Using Oculus VR in Classrooms
Facebook Is Giving Advertisers Access to Your Shadow Contact Information
Facebook is reportedly working on a new flagship virtual-reality headset to replace the Oculus Quest
Facebook Halts Sale of Rift & Quest in Germany Amid Regulatory Concerns
Why the Facebookening of Oculus VR is bad for users, devs, competition
Personal identifiability of user tracking data during observation of 360-degree VR video
Foto: Veative ELL module (at the airport)