Aaron E. Walsh's career path isn't strewn with traditional milestones. Since the age of 18, when he was hired as a computer equipment operator at Boston College, where he now teaches, Walsh has been pretty single-minded about one thing: bolstering education through the innovative use of virtual reality technology.
After five years at the college (where officials hadn't a clue he was still a teenager when they hired him), Walsh founded Mantis Development Corp., a software firm that specializes in digital media and network computing. He then used several million dollars in profits from that venture to launch and personally fund the Media Grid, a public infrastructure for 3-D and virtual reality content. Now 39, Walsh travels around the globe, tirelessly promoting virtual reality technology standards and the Media Grid's immersive education learning system. Immersive education combines interactive virtual reality and sophisticated digital media with collaborative online course environments. Ultimately, Walsh's vision is to help create a world in which a state-of-the-art education is freely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.
Tell me about your early experiences with virtual reality. In about fifth grade, when I was learning to program -- I was one of those kids who was taken to college at a really young age -- what interested me most were the college kids around me making video games. I would go in to my mom's purse, take quarters and walk the half mile to Safeway to play Asteroids or Centipede. But I also knew all I was doing was playing. When I was around 18, I took a pretty hard line with myself and decided if I'm going to constantly spend my time in virtual reality, I'm going to work in virtual reality, not just play.
What happened then? I built my first virtual reality system from scratch in about 1990. It was built on a Macintosh and [a friend and I] had stereo headsets and a power glove so you could reach out and manipulate things. We were a spaceship going down corridors. I had been playing this video game on a keyboard, but when I was in a truly 3-D immersive environment, it was an amazing feeling. I still remember the two of us waving our arms around controlling this spaceship. That's what started it all for me.
How did that lead to the Immersive Education Initiative? I was catalyzed by the ability to create a system. I started to really get a sense that this could impact learning. I had an intuitive sense that this could make it easier for people to absorb complicated information, more so than reading could. Throughout the 1990s, I worked on all of the enabling technologies.
What's the immersive education content like today? It's across the board. Architecture and design students are using virtual worlds to build spaces and then walk through them with fellow students and teachers. We have K-12 students building robots and creating robot galleries. We have mathematics content where you get to visualize mathematical structures and walk around them. When an algebraic equation is visualized, it can be like a flower or a waterfall. Different formulas create different visuals. We also have a fair amount of cell biology content. You can see a DNA structure and manipulate it. You can plant virtual tomatoes and do cross-pollination with other plants and see them grow. There's an ability to fly though the body as a red blood cell.
How is learning in the virtual world better? What are the benefits? In order to learn, you need to engage the mind, and immersive education is engaging. We saw this even before we got back studies proving this. We saw kids locking into these virtual environments and not letting go. I'd tell students playing an interactive game about the Boston Tea Party to spend an hour exploring the ship and exploring the tea. They'd spend five or six hours because they said they were having fun. There's also something about doing, rather than just hearing or seeing. If you can do what you're supposed to be learning, you learn better. This is something that's borne out over and over again in studies about immersive education. Students learn faster and they retain more.
Who creates the immersive education content on the Media Grid? Educators, students -- anyone else who is a member. Members need to provide credentials that show they're affiliated with a school. As long as they are affiliated with a school -- a teacher, student, administrator or someone connected with education -- they're eligible for general membership. They can get access to the technology for free, they can access community groups, and they have the ability to get going right away. It's free. We're nonprofit and inclusive. An educator can craft content for a particular course and keep it private, or they can turn it back over to the community. Most of what we see is that academics want to share. We have a fairly vibrant community of developers.
What's been the reaction in public schools, where so much emphasis is placed on testing and teaching to tests? No K-12 educator I ever met has a leisure life. There's teaching, then grading and other responsibilities. Now you're saying to them, "Here's a new technology that's more complicated than teaching to a test. Here's something brand-new that doesn't have a track record." But in each school, you find the fairly young teachers. We have young educators who were raised on digital media and digital entertainment, and they get it. But it's true. These technologies are not used to teach to a test.
Immersive education is not going to boost test skills. We have schools using these technologies because they see that kids come in and want to take the class. Normally, these same kids might be tardy, but now they're showing up because they know the class will have this technology. Right now, it's an engagement tool. You need to engage them before they can start to learn.
When will you know you've succeeded? When anyone with access to a computer can get a quality education at no cost. I think education is a fundamental human right. We will develop a comprehensive and complete form of study so someone with access to a computer could take rich, compelling courses and learn at the same level as someone going to a university. With simulations and virtual environments, we'll have such a large body of information that it will be up to the individual to decide what they want to learn. The role of schools will morph over time. I think the purpose of a lot of brick-and-mortar institutions will come down to making human connections. The experiences of networking with friends and meeting with faculty face-to-face will be the differentiating factors of [physically] going to the university.