Pixar founder: VR can transform education
Oscar winner and Pixar co-founder Loren Carpenter lectures Slough college students on the power of virtual reality
Despite being known as one of the original trailblazers in the world of computer graphics, a co-founder of Pixar hopes his educational legacy is “going to be far better”.
From the comfort of his home in a remote corner of northern California, Oscar-winner Loren Carpenter was beamed into a college classroom near Slough, Berkshire, to talk about how his pioneering career paved the way for the hi-tech headsets they were wearing.
Students at the Langley campus of the Windsor Forest Colleges Group were given a lecture from the co-founder of Pixar about virtual reality (VR), before experiencing a simulation of visiting the moon – led by a teacher based in Dubai.
Despite 71-year-old Carpenter’s love of science fiction, this feat was made possible thanks to technology that is available today and is becoming increasingly accessible for colleges and schools.
‘One of the greatest steps in years’ for education
Carpenter, who attended a vocational college in the US, has a background in computer programming and his early experiments with computer graphics helped him get a job at Lucasfilm – shortly after the first Star Wars film “made too much money”, he tells Tes.
His work for the computer division culminated in the creation of Pixar, which went on to produce 19 feature films, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc, collectively grossing $11 billion (£8.2 billion) worldwide.
Along with two of his colleagues, Carpenter in 2001 was awarded the only Oscar ever given for computer science, recognising his contribution towards "significant advancements to the field of motion picture rendering".
Carpenter's early innovations with visuals have paved the way for VR devices that are at the forefront of today’s technological revolution.
Although not a teacher, he says he has been an educator throughout his career. “I like to discover things and tell people about them. I feel very optimistic about the educational potential of augmented reality (AR) and VR [virtual reality] devices,” he says. “I think the application of VR in education is one of the greatest steps in years.”
‘We’re taking a field trip to Mars’
Virtual reality is the name for a computer technology that allows the user to feel like they are in another place. They wear a special headset that can produce realistic images that adjust to a person’s movements, allowing them, for example, to walk through the streets of another city.
Carpenter believes that in the future teachers will be able to tell their class: “We’re taking a field trip to Mars." He adds: “It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen very quickly. You will be able to dive into a cell and show the students everything. The teacher would have some controls to label things. Or you could show the solar system in scale.”
One of the biggest technological growth areas in the coming years, he imagines, will be in AR – or mixed reality – although it is still “three to four years off being practical”.
AR could be achieved with a device that looks like a pair of glasses, allowing the user to see their actual surroundings, but with tiny screens to project an image onto the retina. This overlaying of real-time data or graphics does not take the user away from the world but adds to the experience.
Just one of the novel applications for a teacher, Carpenter explains, would be alleviating that age-old concern of remembering students’ names on the first day of class. “The teacher could wear these things and students’ names would appear on them when they looked at them.”
From California to Slough
The technology behind the lesson was provided by Norwich-based edtech company Immersive VR Education. Its free-to-use virtual reality teaching platform for colleges and schools called ENGAGE allows teachers to create a virtual classroom to bring together educators and learners from anywhere in the world.
Christian Long, gaming teacher at Windsor Forest Colleges Group, wanted to give his students a taste of the future. He says: “It is said we only retain 30 percent of what we hear, but 90 percent of what we experience. It’s why we can often remember our childhood holidays vividly, but not many of our school lessons.
“VR is an incredibly powerful tool for engaging students and helping them experience what they learn, so the lesson is never lost. When we can then add the best teachers from across the globe into the mix, the impact we can have on our pupils’ ability to learn will be phenomenal.”
David Whelan, chief executive of Immersive VR Education, says: “This is a pivotal moment in the history of learning. ENGAGE allows students to not only experience the environment they are learning about in virtual reality but have the best teachers from around the globe join them in a virtual classroom.”