SXSW EDU Panel: The Future of Learning: Convergence of VR, AR, & AI


Maya Georgieva (@mayaig): Director, Digital Learning —The New School/Digital Bodies — Immersive Learning.

Maya Georgieva framed her presentation as an update on the state of VR, AR and AI.  Given the dozens of other panels at SXSW EDU on these topics, it seemed like a tall order for half an hour, but she was clearly experienced at this, and she provided a helpful framework for the coming days’ conversations.

She framed the conversation as about a transition to an “age of experience,” by which she meant technologically-aided/-enhanced experience.  She painted a picture of experiences untethered from device, screen or other forms of discreet hardware.  Rather, they’ll be multi-sensory and multi-participant experiences, integrated into our world.  Moreover, they’ll be communal and foreground the coming together of multiple points-of-view.

The technological advances at the heart of these changes are threefold: 1) VR headsets, especially those where the computing power is inside the headset and not tethered to a specific machine or room set-up; 2) the ubiquity of AR, including on Facebook and games like Pokeman and the much-anticipated Harry Potter Wizards Unite; and 3) Widely-available 360 degree cameras that allow for cinematic VR, especially light field cameras that will allow viewers to explore a space and build environments using all available light in dynamic ways, not simply the fixed light captured in a tradition photograph or video.

After this dense update about the technology, Georgieva zoomed out to a discussion of first principles and underlying assumptions. Why VR? she asked, and answered her own question in a few ways.  First, she pointed to the way immersive experiences offer participants a way to see parts of the world and to experience things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.  She foregrounded the ways the participant wouldn’t simply view these worlds and experiences, but would also be able to actively engage with them.


From there, she asked what this means for education.  She cited Seymour Papert‘s constructionist approach.  In her version of Papert, you learn when you make something, embedded in a social context.  It follows that computing power shouldn’t be used to deliver information but to engage learners by offering them the chance to create with information, rather than consuming it.  For Georgieva, the assets a learner encounters are less important than an environment in which the learner can build things and generate and test hypotheses.

Moreover, this is suggestive of a new relationship between student and teacher, novice and expert.  Georgieva paints a picture of traditional education where teachers have developed a mental model of what they want to teach and are faced with the formidable task of communicating this mental model to students.  For Georgieva, VR is a playground for mental modeling, and she imagines a participatory world where students and teacher would dive right in, freed from the prerequisite of forging a shared mental model.  Her vision of a transformation from conceptual classroom to an experiential virtual environment was suggestive and exciting.  Far from painting a picture of a classroom full of students with headsets on, she proposed a virtual world of fully engaged participants, in an embodied, collaborative environment, creating a community of learning and exploration.

From there, she transitioned to a focus on non-linear, immersive, social storytelling.  She suggested that we were witnessing the birth of a medium and talked about an academic program in Immersive Storytelling at Parsons, about the XReality Center at The New School and “The Wait,” a VR proect out of the UC Berkeley school of journalism about asylum seekers in Germany.  On a more personal level, she linked her experience of the Berlin Wall VR Experience at the Newseum to her own childhood behind the Iron Curtain, and how the exhibit gave her the feeling of being an active participant in the historical events that shaped her life.

She ended her talk with a nod to blockchain, and the way it may fill the critical function of authenticating identity in virtual spaces, as well as authenticating virtual experiences if they become part of credentialing or otherwise meaningful markers of learning.

Finally, she played a video about a VR adaptation of Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s “Wolves in the Walls.”  It turned certain conventions inside-out and foregrounded some fundamental questions about the division between viewer and media, between virtual and real.  The film begins by turning the most fundamental genre convention on its head: Lucy (the protagonist) “creates you [the viewer] as her imaginary friend.”  She has to draw your hands before you can use them, and she responds to you as if you’re a character in her movie, not vice versa.  “It’s not a VR movie,” one of the producers says, “It’s characters who live with us.”

On this note, Georgieva concluded with a charge that informed the way she thought about VR.  She quoted Buckminster Fuller’s “The best way to predict the future is to design it,” and she positioned VR as the environment in which we’ll all learn to design our future.

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