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Iowa company creates virtual reality classrooms for 10 universities

Students at 10 universities across the country can visit historic sites and operate on corpses, all from the comfort of their homes, after an Iowa company specializing in virtual reality created digital campuses.

During the pandemic, students at Morehouse College in Atlanta said they struggled with online learning. The university came to VictoryXR, a company based in Davenport, Iowa. CEO Steve Grubbs had the solution: build a virtual replica of the campus.

Students and instructors wear virtual reality headsets to access a three-dimensional computer-generated simulation of real-world locations and events. Users immersed in virtual reality, known as the metaverse, can move around the simulation and interact with others.

In 10 weeks, teachers at Morehouse developed courses for the program and VictoryXR built the metaverse. At Morehouse, courses in inorganic chemistry, world history and biology have used the curriculum.

“Next thing you know, their students are taking classes in the metaverse,” Grubbs said. “The first college in the world.”

Steve Grubbs founded Davenport, Iowa-based VictoryXR in 2016. (Submitted)

Meta, the company that owns Facebook, has connected with VictoryXR to expand “metaversities” after setting up digital classrooms at Morehouse College and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Morehouse is one of 10 higher education institutions to qualify for virtual classrooms through a grant from Meta. According to a public records request filed by The Chronicle of Higher Education, universities will receive more than $500,000 and virtual reality headsets as part of their contracts with VictoryXR.

Grubbs said virtual meeting programs like Zoom can’t recreate the student experience that virtual reality can.

“In a metaversity, you’re all together and you’re in a classroom where you can bump your fists, you can work on projects together, you can break into small groups,” Grubbs said. “A teacher can remove a human heart from a corpse and give it to another student. It’s essential. It’s almost exactly like the brick-and-mortar classroom, only better.

Grubbs said students working in the Metaverse will receive the same education they would receive on campus, and in some ways better.

Grubbs said health science majors will benefit the most from the virtual experience, but history classes can also be enhanced through the metaverse. As on-campus enrollment declines and demand for distance learning increases, Grubbs said learning needs to be kinesthetic or hands-on.

A simulation developed by VictoryXR was the courtroom from Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” While students discuss the book in class, they can sit with the jurors or in the judge’s chair.

“You can understand the book from the perspective of those who sat in the courtroom,” Grubbs said. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve, it’s an understanding that can only be gained by being there. Students can go stand on the Great Wall of China, they can go to Iceland, and they can go to Redwoods forest once they learn with our virtual reality.

Grubbs served at Iowa House from 1990 to 1996, including as chairman of the House Education Committee. He said he has always had an interest in developing new ways to improve education. Buffalo Elementary School in Buffalo, Iowa was the first school to use VictoryXR’s virtual reality education program. Now schools around the world are using the VictoryXR product. Saint Ambrose University in Davenport will be the first higher education institution in Iowa to have a metaversity.

“They’ll be right next to the University of Kansas, West Virginia, California State, and many other great schools across the country,” Grubbs said.

Data gathering

Meta will provide each university with Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headsets, which can collect data while in use.

In the Metaverse, students can create avatars to interact with their classmates from remote settings.  (VictoryXR)
In the Metaverse, students can create avatars to interact with their classmates from remote settings. (VictoryXR)

All of the contracts in The Chronicle’s public records request noted that the universities retain ultimate ownership of the data generated under the partnership. Data collection will depend on the brand of headphones the students are using, according to Grubbs. The grant technology could come from Meta, Pico Technology or HTC, all with their own privacy data acceptance policies.

Currently, Grubbs said no information is collected from users. VictoryXR will not collect any data other than email and name to create an account.

Users will need to create a Facebook account to access the virtual classroom. As part of Meta’s data policy, Oculus products may collect information about physical characteristics and information from third-party applications. Passing information between third-party apps allows the company to match users with friends who also use the app, according to Meta.

Environmental, dimensional and movement data will also be recorded to alert users if they are approaching a virtual boundary. Hand size estimates will be collected to enable the hand tracking feature.

And after?

VictoryXR hopes to grow the business so that every school in the world has a metaversity within the next five to seven years, Grubbs said. The company has been in conversation with several Iowa universities. He plans to meet with the University of Iowa soon to talk about the future of virtual classrooms at the university.

VictoryXR is opening its first metaversity in Europe in August, and Grubbs plans to provide business development assistance in India in September. The company also won a global award for best innovation in education last September.

Grubbs expects the industry to expand into augmented reality. In virtual reality, students are completely immersed and usually work remotely. Augmented reality creates virtual objects visible in the real world classroom.

“They don’t have to fly across the country and live on a campus because the Metaverse is a campus,” he said.

This story was produced by Iowa Capital Dispatch, a subsidiary of States Newsroom. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.