Finding the Right Platform Thought Experiment

In this thought experiment, to help find the right platform for me to study, I’m going to evaluate various options in the context of an educational VR app. The purpose of the app will be to help high school students learn about physics, orbital mechanics, and the solar system. It would allow students to modify orbits, planetary properties, and send missions from Earth to Mars and elsewhere.

I’ve already pretty much set my mind on taking the Unity Immersion course and working on the Vive, because I have one and because I really want to build deeply immersive worlds, not so much mobile type apps. However, it would be shortsighted to not explore other platforms, so I look forward to having my preconceptions challenged.


Age: 16
Occupation: Student
Name: Harvey Pruitt
Quote: “School is so boring, you just sit and listen to people talk for hours, but don’t actually do anything.”
VR Experience Level: Intermediate
Motivation: Harvey is a smart student, but is bored just listening to lectures. He wants to build and make things — to do something other than just sit there.


Price of platforms:

How accessible would each VR platform be to your target student in terms of price? Take into account location, age, and income.

  • Cardboard: Cost $400-600 for the phone, + $15 for headset if not DIY
  • Daydream: Cost $400-600 for the phone, $80 for headset (possibly much less if a standalone headset comes out soon)
  • Oculus VR: $500 for headset; probably need a computer around $300-400
  • Vive: $600 for headset; probably need $600 in the PC

Cardboard & Daydream would be the most accessible, as most people already have a smartphone; even if a parent would not let their kid have a smartphone, they will likely own one themselves and if it’s for educational purposes would gladly let their child use their phone. When the standalone Daydream headsets come out, parents might buy one for their children. Schools would be more likely to invest in multiple Daydream headsets as opposed to the Oculus and Vive, since they will be cheaper, lack cables, and not require complicated setup and teardown procedures, making them more versatile.

Oculus and Vive would be more expensive, and likely would only be owned by middle-class families. This could mean that lower income families and those that live in inner cities might not be able to take advantage. Schools might buy the headsets, but at those prices, they’re not going to buy a terrible number of them, limiting how many can use it at one time.


How interactive does your lesson need to be? For example, do I need to pick things up or could I get away with just looking at objects?

To understand how orbital mechanics work, you’re going to need to be able to move objects and see how their paths change. You might also want to edit the properties of planets and moons, such as their density and mass, to see how that affects gravity. Being able to make denser, more massive objects “feel” heavy to the student can drive the point home. This would likely require some sort of controller, at a minimum the Daydream one, which can simulate this (as per the Daydream Elements demo.) A Cardboard headset would probably be unable to simulate it.

However, one could do an app where the student just uses the sight reticle and work with a menu. Though cumbersome and probably annoying, it is stil possible.


How realistic do your visuals need to be in order to teach? For example, could I use 2D images and videos in a 3D Environment or do you need high poly 3D models.

The graphics would not have to be too advanced for this sort of app. High resolution textures for planets, moon, and the Sun would be preferable, but as the student would likely be positioned in the virtual solar system as a colossal godlike being, that would make up for having less-than-cutting-edge graphics and particle effects. In fact, if you’re doing pure physics, you can even leave out solar system entirely, and make a completely made up one using low poly models.

Active vs Passive:

Does my student need to feel like a participant in the experience or can they be a passive viewer? Could they be both?

The student should be as active as possible in the app. Although observation will be required at times, to try and learn how things work, the student should be able to quickly modify and play around with the settings as soon as possible. The entire point is to get the student more involved, less bored, and doing something rather than just sitting there.


Given the answers above, what are potential platforms you could use for your experience?

Based on the above considerations, potential platforms would be the Daydream, Oculus, and Vive. Both the Oculus and Vive would be able to process the app ably. Daydream would also be able to do so, and while it would have less capabilities, it should still be able to handle it fine. Cardboard would be too annoying for the student to use, not having a separate controller and being too limited.

I’m still focused on building for the Vive, but I was unaware of the capabilities of the Daydream system. The standalone headsets that are coming surprised me; they could do quite a lot for building VR worlds. I would like to explore Daydream in the future, as it looks like an affordable yet capable alternative to the Vive, thus having a much larger potential audience for applications. However, as I do not have a true Daydream capable device, I will stick to taking the Unity Immersion course and working with my Vive.