Every evening’s TV schedules include either an ad for some kind of ‘virtual reality’ (VR) device or a ‘techie’ programme in which one appears. As well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, commercial VR offers 3-D encounters with charging rhinoceroses, surfing, wingsuit flying and other ‘experiences’ that are either life threatening or viciously expensive. Second Life, the online virtual world (but not yet compatible with VR goggles), appeared as long ago as 2003 and at present has about a million regular users and many more have passed through its portal, eventually to tire of its cheesiness. Yet, Second Life no longer seems to be a topic of normal conversation; maybe aficionados don’t go out very often. The development software, the speed and resolution of computers, the peripheral technologies and the visual quality of immersive VR seem to be following something like Moore’s law – the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And VR gaming is clearly very profitable with revenues likely to rise from about US$17 million in 2014 to over US$ 20 billion by 2020.
Douglas McCauley writes in Science (Insights 20 October 2017) about the potential of digital games and simulation for expanding the reach of STEM education, particularly in his own field ecology (McCauley, D.J. 2017. Digital nature: Are field trips a thing of the past? Science, v. 359, p. 298-300; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1919). His view is partly positive, as they match the thirst for armchair experiences and the growing digital expertise of the billion or more gamers and many more whose culture is dominated by electronic media, skewed strongly to the under-24s. For instance, children in the US spend on average 7 hours per day online, but only 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play. There are obvious opportunities to familiarise and enthuse young people with the staggering richness of the natural world, which none of us will ever be able to witness first hand. At a time when the UK National Trust reports, for instance, that only a third of British children can recognise a magpie (a distinctive and common European member of the crow family) whereas 9 out of 10 easily recognise a Dalek alien cyborg, there is clearly a need. Sixty years ago David Attenborough’s early monochrome Zoo Quest series on BBC TV definitely drew me into natural science as it did millions of others, and I for one am deeply grateful for his then somewhat awkward efforts. So it would be stupid to condemn the potential of VR and more plain-vanilla gaming methods as they could do much the same and probably a great deal more. But can it really teach the field skills needed by any potential observational scientist rather than just make people more interested?
McCauley is less certain on that front, and so am I. Studies have shown that virtual field trip participants perform no better than their peers who engaged only in conventional illustrated lectures. ‘Immersive’ experiences can simulate some, but not all aspects of real terrain, ecosystems and geological features. My own geological ventures have involved a ‘virtual’ aspect provided by remote sensing and image interpretation. Those now pretty aged technologies show ‘the big picture’ – with some zoom-in capacity – and provide insights into regional and, with Google Earth, local geological structures and relationships. By capturing imagery outside the humanly visible wavelength range they add a great deal about rock composition that would otherwise require large sample collections, petrographic interpretation of thin sections and some basic geochemistry. A stereoscopic 3-D view and the use of terrain in creating perspective oblique images also permit estimates of dip and strike of strata. But it is all a bit inhuman and alien, much the same as ‘doing’ geology on Mars without the opportunity to behave as a curious being would if actually on the surface. Any field scientist has real experience imprinted for years in much the same way as would her hunter-gatherer forbears, while it has been shown that virtual experiences may persist for a mere few weeks. My view is that often uncomfortable, total immersion in field reality, literally step-by-step and day after day fosters continual reflection during and for a long time after the experience. Much of science in general is about ‘mulling over’ observations at every level of detail; the more detail and the more repetition the deeper the insight and the more profound the breaks through.
As higher education continues along its path of commodification the more supposedly ‘immersive’ virtual experiences are likely to supplant field work, largely for cost reasons – both for students and institutions. In my former institution, to which I am still tenuously attached, a decision was taken 17 years ago to make residential field studies optional, and in 2011 to abandon them almost entirely in favour of ‘virtual’ experiences of one kind or another. The results have been dramatic: enrollment in geoscientific courses has fallen to a third of the pre-2000 level; retention has declined by up to 10% and pass rates have dropped significantly. The bottom line is that what we used to call Earth sciences has become increasingly marginalised as regards the range of courses on offer.