SAN FRANCISCO — Looking at a picture of the Great Wall of China might cause a student to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. But using technology to feel like they’ve actually visited the landmark could create a future China scholar.
That’s at least the dream behind Google Expeditions, a 10-month-old project from the search giant that gives teachers virtual-reality tools to teleport students to some of the most intriguing destinations on this planet and others. Beginning Monday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company will begin visiting thousands of schools in six states as well as in Australia, England and Brazil.
Teachers who expressed interest online in Expeditions after Google announced the project at its I/O developers conference last May will get all-day access to a kit that includes a tablet (from which teachers control the lesson plan), ASUS smartphones (which slot into Google Cardboard or Mattel View-Masters for the VR experience) and a router that relays the signal between the devices (no in-school Internet connection is required).
Google has yet to say whether it has sales expectations with the program, specifically with regard to the unique teacher-focused content of the VR adventures.
“Honestly, we haven’t gotten that far yet,” says Ben Schrom, product manager for Expeditions. “Classrooms are unique environments, especially when it comes to putting technology in them. The idea is to take the tech into the classrooms, help teachers get their head around it and learn more about what we can do with it.”
Another of the project’s sponsors, Subaru, is both providing funding for the creation of some of the content (“They’re particularly passionate about reducing landfills,” says Schrom) as well as a small fleet of vehicles so kits can make the rounds in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. Others states may be added, depending on what new schools express interest by contacting the Expeditions Pioneer Program site. The program is open to classrooms of third graders through college students.
Google Cardboard is a simple smartphone holder made out of cardboard. Directions are available online to make homemade versions as well. Stereoscopic content displayed in a horizontal mode comes to live in two and three dimensions when using such basic phone holders, and represents an inexpensive way to access such media when compared to devices such as Samsung VR and the forthcoming and very pricey Oculus Rift VR goggles.
To date, Google has compiled more than 100 VR expeditions to places ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to Mars. Content partners include PBS, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Planetary Society and The Wildlife Conservation Society.
Much of the content is amped up two-dimensional fare, some of it culled from from Google’s global Street View image-capturing project. But increasingly the Expeditions will feature 3-D video created by Google’s new Jump camera rig, which is a GoPro-produced product that holds 16 GoPro cameras all shooting at once, footage that Google then stitches into 3-D video that appears incredibly life-like.
“I was in a ninth grade classroom recently and watched as the kids were able to really compare the architecture of the Duomo in Florence and the Pantheon in Rome,” says Expeditions program manager Jen Holland. “The teacher had come prepared to talk about this with some black and white photos she had printed out. But to see the kids really come to life when they felt like there were in these places was amazing.”
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava
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