How to Jumpstart Your Next Virtual Reality Field Trip

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Last week was beyond belief. It began as I explored the underbelly of a towering Tyrannosaurus rex (whose gaze was locked upon my every move), and finished as I crawled, hands and knees, out of an Egyptian pyramid. Enrich those adventures by ascending an Everest escarpment and repairing an interplanetary robot, and you can appreciate the limitless bounds of an experience known as virtual reality, or VR for short.

Although my high-end virtual experiences were the product of several hardware systems, each costing over two thousand dollars, VR is entering the classroom in a modest, but equally amazing form. In just a few years since its initial release, Google has helped level the VR playing field by offering an inexpensive viewer that has stimulated the release of all sorts of accompanying VR experiences.

It is called Google Cardboard, or simply “Cardboard” for short. Its name comes from the corrugated building material used to assemble the fold out viewers. Add a couple of plastic lenses, a moveable magnet, and Velco closures and you have a basic viewer that can be paired with most of today’s smart phones. Since these handheld viewers are mostly passive, their expense is minimal. You can uncover a variety of brands and options on the internet whose cost begins at about half the price of a movie ticket.

Both iPhones and Android phones have online access to a repository of apps that are compatible with the cardboard viewers. I’d suggest you begin your foray into this virtual world by downloading two apps. The first is called Cardboard. You can identify the app by its icon representation of a viewer. When you open the app offers up a menu of VR experiences. To select an option, simply look at it. Your head position and motion is tracked by the phone’s onboard gyroscope and communicated to the program. In response, a movable onscreen spot that mirrors your movement appears on the screen display. You can also press a rudimentary magnetic lever that your cell phone interprets as a click.  WOW Alert: While in the Arctic Journey, click on the fishing float, wait a moment and look up. You won’t be disappointed.

Once you have some familiarity with the experience, it’s time to explore the second app, Google Expeditions. As every teacher will immediately appreciate, this app is the realization of classroom VR experiences. It offers up virtual field trips, with online snippets beginning with a face to face encounter with a mountain gorilla. But that just scratches the surface of educational potential.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has paired with Google in order to develop this first generation of classroom VR experiences. A student set of viewers are paired with the instructor’s tablet controller. In command, the teacher can direct the students’ gaze to points of interest. Icons of happy faces record where each student is looking, allowing the instructor the real-time ability to monitor virtual stragglers. The instructor is also presented with an overlaid script that offers background into the image and virtual experience. Since the teacher support is displayed in context, there’s no need to switch between a second window or have ancillary notes.

Okay, you are now prepped to enter that virtual world. In my follow-up blog, I’ll talk more about the mechanics of the system and what you’ll need to get up and running for a roomful of students. For now, however, just check out a set of Google Expedition viewers and visit the HMH site, I am sure we’ll see each other in the virtual world!


HMH Field Trips for Google Expeditions is available for students grades K-12 and currently includes four field trips aligned to select HMH science and social studies curriculum. Field Trips include “America Expands West,” which takes students for a ride through the prairie in a covered wagon and teaches them about life on the range for early pioneers, and “The Florida Seminoles,” which brings students on a journey to the Everglades via dugout canoes to experience life from the viewpoint of the ancient Seminole Tribe. More than 20 additional HMH Field Trips are planned for release over the coming months. 

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