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An excerpt from this week’s Hack Education Weekly Newsletter

Highly recommended: tweet something trollish before you get on a plane for 10+ hours. (e.g. this tweet.) How many people will take advantage of your Internet silence to mansplain ed-tech to you?

Anyway, Mattel has a new View-Master that uses Google Cardboard. The history of the future of toys, or something. That Google Cardboard = View-Master should perhaps maybe possibly give you pause about how AMAZING Google Cardboard is. But nope. Hype and revolution. Same as it ever was…


More thoughts…

See, here’s the thing. I realize that Mattel’s new View-Master is appealing for the sake of nostalgia. My grandparents had an early stereoscope at their house, and it was always one of my favorite toys – the slides were fascinating because, unlike the content of the classic red View-Master I had myself, these were not full-color images of Disneyland or Disney movies. They were black-and-white scenes from from the early 1900s – I was utterly fascinated by the furniture, the costumes, the poses.

I suppose I spent a fair number of hours with one or other of these pressed to my face. But I would never call the View-Master “VR.” Yes, there’s a distortion that makes the images appear to be three-dimensional. But I’ve always imagined that “VR” meant a more immersive experience than that. The emphasis, if you will, should be on the “reality” not simply on the “virtual.”

Seriously, can you imagine if a teacher said “my students looked at pictures of Verona through the View-Master and now they have a better understanding of Romeo and Juliet”? We’d scoff, wouldn’t we? Yet that’s precisely the crap I’m hearing about Google Cardboard.

Oh, I realize that Google Cardboard seems to have impressed a lot of folks in ed-tech. But that’s a low bar. Look at Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets, for example: their big selling point – besides being free – is that they don’t have all the bells and whistles of the more bloated Microsoft Office. It’s “minimum viable productivity software.” Looks at the Google Chromebook. It’s a “minimum viable laptop.” (Let's pause and consider here what we really mean by "viable" - what gets lost.)

Similarly, you could call Google Cardboard “minimum viable virtual reality.” Here are the necessary components, which Google boasts you can assemble yourself for about $20: a piece of cardboard, 45 mm focal length lenses, magnets, Velcro, a rubber band, an optional NFC tag, and an Android phone.

The “virtual reality” offered by Google Cardboard comes via the display of a smartphone phone, distorted by those 45 mm lenses. The “virtual reality” offered by Google Expeditions, the special field trip lessons created by Google, are “panoramas,” according to the Google blog: “360° photo spheres, 3D images and video, ambient sounds – annotated with details, points of interest, and questions that make them easy to integrate into curriculum already used in schools.”

They’re videos, people. They’re photographs. The view is just held up to each student’s face rather than projected at the front of the screen. Yes, some special VR apps are being developed for Android, but the limitations of this system are pretty clear. This is no Oculus Rift, which is rumored to retail for around $350 when it eventually hits the market. Google Cardboard runs on a smartphone.

I’ve already written about how I think Google Expeditions will be just another example of how ed-tech furthers inequality. Actual, real field trips are already on decline, particularly for low-income students. And actual, real field trips really do have a lasting educational impact – one that watching a film via a device strapped on your face just can’t rival.

I’ve heard a lot lately that “no one is arguing that virtual field trips will replace field trips.” Yeah. Bullshit. Field trips have already been excised from the school day to make way for other things – more test-prep, more testing via computer, for starters. But there’s something else that Google Cardboard is going to replace too: these cheap Google Expeditions – and this flawed argument that that counts as “virtual reality” – are likely going to prevent (or at least slow) more immersive VR experiences from ever entering schools too. Why pay for that when you can convince yourself that the 21st century version of the View-Master count as VR?

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Audrey Watters


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