Virtual Reality Sandboxes: The Ideal Instructional Design Paradigm?

Picture this: you’re 3 years old and you’re sitting in a sandbox. You have a plastic bucket, a shovel, and access to water. You’re in heaven. I suspect that as long as there have been children and sandboxes, the two have made rather ideal companions. Why is that?

Sandboxes are places to play. Children love to play. So the sandbox becomes a mechanism through which children can achieve satisfaction by doing what they love to do. More specifically, sandboxes are

  • arenas that allow for and promote active exploration

  • within the context of a bounded environment

  • with very few rules for how things should be done.

What’s magical about sandboxes: they’re both free and constrained at the same time. There are no rules for how things should be done, but there are certain limitations about what is possible. So the joy comes in the conflict between these two forces:

  1. total creative freedom vs the physical boundaries of the sandbox itself

  2. the ability to make anything with sand vs the inherent limitations of sand

I see this exact phenomenon in some of my favorite VR apps:

·     Universe Sandbox

·     Google Earth VR

·     You VR

Universe Sandbox is the absolute quintessence of this phenomenon. Heck, look at its name! The creators describe it this way:

“Universe Sandbox is a physics-based space simulator. It merges gravity, climate, collision, and material interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet. Create, destroy, and interact on a scale you've never before imagined.”

Watch any kid in a sandbox and you’ll see a whole bunch of creating and destroying going on.

When I first sat in the Universe Sandbox, I assumed God-like omnipotence and hovered over the Earth, gazing down at its majesty. I got to pose a rather interesting question: what would happen if Earth had two moons, not just one? So I created another moon, threw it into orbit around the Earth, and watched the disastrous consequences: the two moons collided and then crashed into Earth, utterly destroying the planet. I witnessed this in extraordinarily vivid detail while this hauntingly beautiful music played in the background – a mix between a requiem and new age synthesizers.

 Universe Sandbox

Universe Sandbox

And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I started to cry. I wasn’t just watching any old planet being destroyed. I was watching my planet – our planet – being destroyed. I wasn’t gazing down on its majesty. I was gazing down on our majesty. There’s little difference between humans and the planet we inhabit. As Carl Sagan observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” I am made of the same things the Earth is made of. So in watching its death, I was watching our death.

Google Earth VR provides a similar kind of God-like omnipotence. But instead of being bounded by the universe, this sandbox is constrained within the confines of Earth itself. What do most people do when they first enter the Google Earth VR sandbox? They go home. So that’s what I did. I went back to the place I grew up when I was a kid, back to that tiny little town in southeast Georgia.

 My boyhood home.

My boyhood home.

I hovered above the town, flew right above the house where I was raised, and dropped down into the front yard. And there I was, standing in front of the house where I grew up.

And there they were again: those tears. Flooded with an ocean of memories, I looked around behind me and saw my neighbor’s house – the basketball hoop still there, the small apple tree now grown so large, the driveway giving way to moss and neglect.

I was there. And yet, of course, I wasn’t really there. But, then again, I kind of was. Another curious contradiction within VR and a rich source of creative tension: that you can “literally” do things, but you aren’t literally doing any of these things. So you can “literally” be in front of the house where you grew up and yet not literally be in front of the house where you grew up at the same time. You can “literally” step into the shoes of another person and experience what it’s like to be them, but you can’t literally step into the shoes of another person and experience what it’s like to be them. Makes no sense. And that’s part of what makes it so fun.

I find myself frequently going back into Google Earth VR to travel to places I’ve never been. I stood on top of Mt. Everest, visited a busy market in Syria, stood under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Went back to the hospital where I was born, visited the school in Japan where I taught English, hovered above Hong Kong, stood and looked up at the tallest building in the world. Every time I enter this sandbox, I’m excited about what I’ll discover.

The last sandbox -- You VR -- is constrained within the confines of the human body. And while it doesn’t offer as much unbounded freedom as the other two sandboxes, it nevertheless provides an extraordinary range of possibility. I stood inside a healthy beating heart, adjusted the beats per minute, and watched the ventricles expand and contract at ever-increasing speeds. I then switched the view and saw what an unhealthy heart looks like and how the ventricles behave.

 You VR

You VR

I jumped out of the heart and popped into the brain. In front of me was a massive brain, easily three feet long by two feet high. I “literally” – here we go again – stuck my head inside this massive brain and was able to see the various brain structures hidden beneath. It was incredibly fun to move my head back and forth between just outside the brain and then deep within it. I was laughing and chortling with glee as I did so. I recently observed what a malignant tumor looks like and was able to position it in various places in the body, observing it in all its 3D horror. It looked ugly. And dangerous. And deadly.

So what do I take away from these three sandbox experiences?

It’s not just the thrill of play and the joy of discovery, but also the strong emotions these experiences conjured: the feeling of connection to the Earth via Universe Sandbox, the flood of memories from Google Earth VR, and the stark horror of a malignant tumor from You VR. I never expected VR to be so moving, so emotionally engaging.

Don’t get me wrong: I've experienced lots of crap in VR. Being "immersed" is not inherently valuable. For example, I took a tour of the human body -- -- and was talked at just like I would be as a passive learner at the effect of yet another Death By PowerPoint. But I've also experienced magical, transformational VR that leverages the unique capabilities of VR.

 xpereal is partnering with organizations now to produce the empirical data to corroborate these claims and to better identify the precise difference that VR makes and what the optimal implementations are.

Discovery learning and unstructured learning got a bad rap since Jerome Bruner introduced it in the 60's. But what might these new tools add to this discourse? Might we find a new way to engage students in experiences that tap into their childhood fascination with play? Might we find ourselves back in those sandboxes from long ago?