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Immersive Technology and a New Virtual Reality

canal tour boat

Article by: David Waltenbaugh, Founder and CEO, Root VR and founding member of XR Virginia.

A new “virtual field trip” down Richmond, Virginia’s Kanawha Canal showcases the potential to use Extended Reality (XR) technologies to learn, work, and connect in powerful new ways.

Virtual reality has long found a home in works of science fiction and visions of a far-away future, but the onset of the COVID-19 virus and the related closures of workplaces and schools and general social distancing is showcasing the technology’s potential in applications for remote work, play, and even education.

Extended Reality, or XR, as the collective technologies of Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and other forms of immersive media have been termed, generally involves the use of headsets or glasses to display content in a manner which reacts to the user’s gaze and movement. In contrast to traditional, fixed displays like televisions or computer monitors, XR more closely replicates the ways in which we naturally interact with the world around us. In theory, mimicking true-to-life experience could improve how people process information, and a growing body of research is showing that there is more reality than fiction to this science.

In a 2018 study conducted at the University of Maryland, researchers conducted a visual memory test comparing XR technology to traditional digital education platforms like desktop computers and tablets, finding that the added immersion provided by virtual reality significantly improved memory recall. And while “virtual field trips” may not provide a perfect substitute for actual experience, researchers at the University of Waterloo contend that they present a powerful alternative that increases accessibility to experiential learning when in-person learning may be infeasible.

Outside of the research lab, many organizations have begun employing XR to create educational content in the hopes of harnessing some of the technology’s power to teach and to reach. Richmond, Virginia-based Venture Richmond recently partnered with immersive media production company Media Plural to produce a “virtual field trip” of their Riverfront Canal Cruises on the historic Kanawha Canal. Created with a 360-degree camera and specialized audio recording equipment and viewable on standard web browsers, smartphones, and XR headsets, the 30-minute experience takes viewers on a guided tour of the canal and explores its role in Richmond and American history and commerce. In addition to creating an experience which can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages from around the world, Venture Richmond tied the tour’s content to specific Virginia Studies and U.S. History Standards of Learning in an effort to create a piece which could be used for Fourth and Fifth Grade education by teachers and families schooling remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Venture Richmond’s efforts include offering products and programs that add value to Downtown Richmond for those who live and work here as well as for those who come visit,” said Anedra Bourne, Deputy Executive Director for Venture Richmond. “For us, the opportunity to use this technology to bring our Canal Cruises into people’s homes as an education tool was too exciting to pass up, especially during a time when parents need creative ways to keep learning fun while at home. We hope that teachers will use it in the classroom in the future both in Richmond and throughout Virginia; and, that taking a cruise with us virtually will entice folks to come visit the riverfront.”

For information on news and events related to the use of XR technology in education, healthcare, enterprise, and entertainment, follow XR Virginia, a trade organization dedicated to promoting XR industry in Virginia.

And be sure to join XR Virginia for their first Virtual Happy Hour event on Friday, July 10, 4:30-5:30 p.m.  "Virtual Reality: Failure to Launch or Ready for Liftoff?" featuring USC's Albert "Skip" Rizzo who will discuss the science of VR. Click here for more information.