Why is this Virtual Reality MOOC needed?

Virtual Reality has been in the spotlight recently as many people from different areas, from creative artists to psychologists, engineers etc., all want to be able to benefit from this new tool in their work. However, it is not a new invention. The modern concept of VR was first proposed in 1969 and researchers have been working in this area ever since, which means that there are a lot lessons to be learnt.

Although VR has a long history, it only just reached the consumer market in the past few years – this is driven by the development of several key technologies, such as machine learning, computer vision, tracking technology, graphics and computer animation. Understanding how to design VR applications requires basic knowledge of all the technologies involved and how they work together in VR. Therefore, for someone new to VR, it is beneficial to choose this general VR course rather than focusing on only one of the aspects.

Now is the right time to enter the VR industry as we are just as the beginning of the rise of the technology and its future is yet to be defined. We know that VR is going to fundamentally change the way we interact with the world and with each other – and the new MOOC is the best opportunity to be part of this!


Why did you decide online learning was the best approach?

We wanted to share our expertise as widely as possible and no other mechanism allows us to reach a global audience. Online learning is extremely inclusive by being affordable and easily accessible to people across borders and at different stages of their lives. We didn’t want financial difficulties to become a reason to stop anyone from learning what they want and Coursera shares the same view, which made us a perfect match.

Similarly, we understand that it is not only university students who want to learn about VR. Many people halfway through their careers want to be able to apply their skills and expertise using this new medium, but not everyone has the time to go to a physical class. With online learning, they can do it in their own time at their own pace.


What does the course cover?

It is a specialization, which means a collection of shorter MOOCs. We have 5 courses:

  • Introduction to Virtual Reality gives an overview of the technology and the psychological experience of VR – the sense of presence – because in virtual reality you need to understand both. This first course is really for anyone with an interest in VR; no prior experience in computing is required and learners won’t need any hardware.
  • 3D Models for Virtual Reality gets learners started with creating VR experiences. They will learn the basics of 3D graphics and how to apply them in VR. This is the first course where you need VR hardware.
  • Interaction Design in Virtual Reality looks at how we can make VR interaction mimic the way we interact with the real world. We have to use different devices and techniques than the traditional controllers because VR is very different from standard games and apps.
  • Building Interactive 3D Characters and Social VR looks at a hot upcoming topic: social interaction in VR. The course teaches learners how to create characters with realistic body language and how to use them to create social experiences.
  • Making Your First Virtual Reality Game is the last course that brings everything together and guides learners through the process of creating a complete VR experience.


When do you think VR will really go mainstream? What will it take for this to happen?

VR has seen a lot of buzz last year and many people were expecting it to go mainstream instantly, but that is not realistic. It is a similar situation as we have seen with smartphones – the first iPhone in 2007 sold well, but it took many years for smartphones to go from an expensive niche to a mainstream product. VR hardware is expensive and there is not much content out there, which needs to be addressed it becomes mainstream. For example, our course is trying to educate new VR creators to ensure we will have more content, but this will be a gradual process over the next years.


How will VR/AR revolutionise our lives?

There are so many ways in which they could revolutionise our lives, that it is hard to know what will be the big thing, the killer app. VR is undoubtedly going to be great for entertainment and it will change the way we interact with media, but it will not be limited to just that.

We expect VR to become a new platform for social interaction, hopefully limiting the level of online abuse as it is hard to be abusive to someone if you can see people’s facial expression, even if mediated in VR. It will also change the way we work, in particular the way we hold meetings and how we work with colleagues across the globe. We already see the first uses in engineering with medicine and education likely to follow suit, but it is too early to say exactly how our ways of working will change.

But really, I would predict that the thing that is most revolutionary will be something that nobody has thought of yet. Going back to smartphones, Facebook was only just getting started when the iPhone launched, it would have been really hard to predict how social media are going to be so important to smartphone use. I think we will see something similar with VR.


Which industry sectors will be boosted/see most potential?

Games and advertising are the sectors that currently see a lot of growth, but in the long term it is more likely that VR will become its own medium rather than being a branch of games and films.

There are many other industries where we will see an impact. Engineering and architecture already use VR to design and test new products entirely virtually. At the moment, it is used for large projects, such as oil rigs, but it will become more universal. It is also going to change education and professional training by allowing us to directly experience any chosen situation.

For example, Sylvia has worked on using VR for trainee doctors to have an experience of dealing with difficult patients. Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers in VR in the 90s, had a vision that students could learn chemistry by “being a molecule” and really experience how molecules interact with each other – and I think that we will see that happen.


Is there anything people are failing to understand when it comes to the rise of Virtual Reality and/or Augmented Reality?

I think that at the moment people are seeing VR and AR through the lens of other media, like games or film, which makes it hard to see that they are completely new media with very different rules. For example, the simple fact that there is no frame around the screen breaks almost every rule we know about making film.

Fundamentally, VR is about creating presence, something that has no real equivalent in any other media. To really know how to do VR, you need to know how to create presence and that will not come from knowing filmmaking or game design. That is why we focus on it so much in the course.

Another thing is that is easy to get wrong is to think of VR in terms of visuals and the screens in front of your eyes. What makes a head mounted display a VR tool is not necessarily that it puts a screen in front of your eyes, although that is important, but that it has a head tracker. When you turn your head, you will expect not only to see something else but also the way you hear sounds around you should change, just as it would in real life.

Finally, how we interact with VR/AR digitally means that we are moving from 2D interfaces, such as keyboard, mouse, and game controllers, to 3D interaction. However, it is wrong to think 3D interaction as an unfamiliar territory where we have to define new rules – in fact we interact with the real world in 3D every day. We need to think about how we do things in real life, with our body and our hands, and how to replicate the same in VR/AR.


Many are worried about the effects of Brexit on British industries – what do you think?

I think a lot of what drives technology forward is international cooperation. It would be tragic if we lost that and it would affect the tech industry particularly strongly. Already the team behind our course is internationally diverse, Sylvia is Chinese, Marco is Italian/British and we worked with people from the US, Russia, Europe, Brazil and of course, the UK.

One of the reasons why we love working with Coursera and the University of London International Programmes, because they are both truly global platforms. We can reach people anywhere in the world and they all become part of a worldwide community of learners.


A study by TEKSystems found that 73% of managers say they can’t find experienced, skilled workers, yet 29% of workers are told they’re overqualified. Is it possible the skills gap is in part due to poor communication on the part of IT leaders who aren’t doing a good enough job at explaining the skills they actually need?

I think a large part of the problem is that technology changes so rapidly and with it the skill needed, making it very hard to keep up. This is where MOOCs are already having a massive impact. Long gone are the days when you did all your learning before the age of 21 and applied that knowledge for the rest of your life. Now everyone needs to be a lifelong learner and MOOC are the best platform to do that learning.

Platforms like Coursera make it possible for people to keep up to date and learn about whatever are the most exciting emerging technologies – and right now I think it is VR. But as VR is still developing and forming, we tried to include as much as possible of the background, theory and history behind all the technology and technical skills. We hope this would help our learners to quickly adapt to any change in the field.