The use of virtual reality has grown since the more accessible releases of platforms like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. Everything from indie companies to AAA studios have dipped a toe into the headset, creating experiences with games that feature more interactivity than ever before. With so many markets relatively untapped by VR, it is no surprise when a number of startup companies move in to make their claims to the marketplace.
One such company is Schell Games, a company founded by Jesse Schell in 2002. Schell Games is not a household name, but their legacy is filling in an untapped marketplace: educational titles. From tablet to iOS releases, to educational applications, the majority of Schell’s catalog are games aimed to either change behavior or educate in a more interactive way while partnering up with institutions such as Google, Yale, and even the Fred Rogers Company.
Educational games are a growing market. Most educational games are often maligned for their overly simplistic nature, but over the years, new innovations, from chat-to-speech integration, graphical overhauls, or high-quality research, have been changing the perception of educational titles slowly. The lack of fun has become a focus on engagement, and games are now being utilized as educational tools across all ages.
It is only recently where Schell games have found an untapped niche for educational games: virtual reality. Their most recent releases have focused entirely on VR and augmented reality, and some of their games, such as the technically impressive Happy Atoms and the VR game HoloLAB Champions, have been met with a more mainstream appeal. Now, Shell games is hoping to expand into the realm of history, with their upcoming project, HistoryMaker VR.
“The use of immersive virtual reality for HistoryMaker VR allows students to embody a historical figure," said Dr. Brooke Morrill, the director of education at Schell Games.“It’s the modern-day equivalent of donning a costume and standing up in front of your classmates to give a speech as a former president, except that you don’t actually need to be in front of your classmates.”
The main point of HistoryMaker VR is simple: It is a way to give students and educators the ability to learn through more interaction. Teachers would assign their project to the students, who then conduct research and upload the notes into the game. These notes can be tweaked with the in-game teleprompter, and students can even use period-correct props to help accentuate their research.
“Active involvement in the virtual world allows for the greatest immersion, and high-end VR platforms allow users to interact with the virtual world with almost real-world levels of fidelity,” Morrill said. “VR also allows users to shut out the real world and focus on the virtual one, which means that middle school students can (almost) forget that their classmates are watching and perform unabashedly.”
The use of VR here is a continuation of previous VR experiences, such as HoloLAB Champions. Morrill notes that the team has actually learned from their previous work to help streamline the design of HistoryMaker VR, including allowing more creativity with the technology for teachers, and marketing it appropriately with as much information as possible so that teachers are able to use the game efficiently.
Accuracy and timeliness are also part of the design of HistoryMaker VR.
“We work closely with both end users (middle school history and civics teachers and students) and subject matter experts to ensure historically accurate models and props,” Morrill said. From that feedback, Schell Games is able to incorporate changes as needed. This includes selecting which historical figures to use; the final selection will consist of those found in most middle school curriculums for easy classroom integration. Ultimately, the game's future features are in the hands of the public, with Schell Games looking into adding features such as developing modules with people from specific historical events, in-game exporting tools, and other activities.
Both students and teachers will have different experiences with the game, according to Morrill.
“For players, we have included an in-game tutorial that walks through the various features and controls within HistoryMaker VR," she said. "Players are able to take fullest advantage of the experience once they are comfortable with navigating it. For teachers, we have provided a product guide, which includes an overview, troubleshooting tips, example activities, and so forth.”
The pieces are in place for HistoryMaker VR, but the biggest hurdle Schell Games faces now is accessibility. Morrill hopes to market HistoryMaker VR specifically to teachers and schools for classroom use, but she recognizes the need for new technology being provided in the classrooms first. Thankfully, one avenue that has helped Schell Games is the recent grant of $1 million by the U.S Department of Education.
“We were thrilled to be awarded our Phase II grant (#99190019C0040) to further develop our HistoryMaker VR Phase I prototype,” Morrill said. “Broadly, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education is focused on improving K-12 student outcomes through research, so our priority is further developing and refining a content creation tool that teachers can effectively harness to improve their students’ learning outcomes. The pressure was on during the grant application process, but with our award in hand, we are able to focus on working together with IES to create the best possible product for educators and students.”
The grant gives HistoryMaker VR a much needed boost for its overall goal. It also provides the accessibility Schell Games wanted—a direct line to classrooms and students—that will help in reaching its overall goal.
Ultimately, Morrill believes that games like HistoryMaker VR can be a major breakthrough in education.
“We believe that VR will succeed in schools in so much as the hardware and content are solving problems for teachers and students and not creating new problems to solve,” she said. “It’s important to us to provide high-quality content that has meaningful impact on users.”
Currently, HistoryMaker VR is planned to be only on the Oculus Rift, with some prototypes being tested right now. There is no official release date on when the game will be complete or given to schools as an educational option, but with the grant secured, Schell is looking to hopefully release HistoryMaker VR in the next few years.
What are your thoughts on HistoryMaker VR? What about Schell Games? Leave your comments below.