The people behind the Interactive Digital Centre (IDC), recently opened in Tshwane, hit us with a statistic we didn’t entirely believe: virtual reality (VR) enabled schools experienced 100% higher attention levels and 30% higher test scores.
After spending a day at the IDC, we’re far less skeptical.
A joint venture between the city of Tshwane and US-based VR specialists EON Reality, the IDC is a tried and tested facility much like others that exist in other parts of the world, such as the UK, France, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Mauritius.
Inside the IDC is an ecosystem geared towards educating students and giving them a leg up as they enter the job market.
The cycle starts with a series of planned tours for primary and high school students, in which children are taken through some pretty impressive interactive experiences.
They can step inside a VR-generated structures and environments, such as jet engine. They can virtually manipulate a neuron in real time. They can even get to grips – figuratively speaking – with the inner workings of a bathroom to see how plumbing works.
All of this is done through a mix of tech that we’re happy to see isn’t tied down to proprietary systems. One example of what this tech is capable of is the non-interactive sea animal experience, which uses a curved screen and 3D imaging very similar to IMAX theatres.
The interactive showcases are much more involved. The setup of each experience will be recognisable to anyone who has ever seen a motion capture studio used for movies and games; a pristine environment with a row of cameras above. Here, the person taking part in the experience is surrounded by three walls with an image projected onto them.
The experience then needs to read movement. This is where mocap balls on both the user’s 3D glasses and an Xbox 360 controller come in to play. Then it’s a case of using one’s own movement, as well as the controller to interact with the environment.
Once kids have finished highschool, the next stage of the IDC is available to them in the form of an internship. In these courses pupils will learn programming, 3D modelling and how to translate those skills to VR.
While the first choices for these internships are computer sciences and multimedia students, the IDC accepts anyone who can impress them.
There has also been talk of stipends and expansions for these internships, something that the IDC needs help for from other companies as well as the city itself.
We were told that, at present, the programme can handle fifty students. Since opening in April, the first batch of 32 students told us that they had already acquired new skills as well as polished up the ones they brought with them.
While it is hoped that graduates of the internship programme will go off to start their own businesses or obtain jobs, a big goal of the facility is to have them stay on and work as content creators.
Stationed in Tshwane, these creators will make the next generation of VR experiences and teaching tools that younger visitors will use, thus completing the circle.
Outside of that, however, it is also made free for download on the Google Play/ App Store in the form of EON Experience VR. From this app thousands of pieces of content created by EON can be experienced. You can view them without any peripherals in AR, or strap on something like Google Cardboard.
The IDC is an extremely ambitious project, hoping to make an entire generation of content creators, nurtured from primary school. But it doesn’t stop there.
As other local VR company AltReality realised, all this tech is great and all, but it’s useless if those who need it have no access. During our visit we were informed of plans to load the components of the IDC up onto a bus and drive it out to communities who would not get access otherwise.
That’s just one ambition from the people behind this project. There are other aspects such as new facilities, university integration and, wait for this, a VR recreation of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
For now we’re impressed with what we saw and hope to see it expand, but we must touch on an issue a few people were speaking about today. The big question is this: why is the city investing in this high-level programme when foundation-level schooling should be the priority?
IDC director Dave Lockwood offered the following explanation:
Twelve years ago we had a meeting with the department of basic education. They said we couldn’t do this project because the couldn’t even get books into schools. Now [we] have that same department putting tablets into schools. The platforms are arriving but the content is lacking. In South Africa we can start looking at locally-generated content, or we can be consumers that use non-relevant content.