Tag Archives: education

Oculus Rift, a Gateway to New Worlds

I have a cool job working at a NASA Visitor Center, and occasionally, that means that I get to do some really cool things—some of which are creating or helping design and build exhibits to share exciting information with the public in engaging ways. The other day, I had the opportunity to experience a demonstration on how the Oculus Rift goggles could be used as a learning adventure and I must say, the hype surrounding the technology is well deserved.

For those who have not heard, Oculus Rift is a virtual reality hardware that is completely immersive and allows the user to look and move around in a virtual world. Since the earliest hints of this technology, gamers have been giddy at the possibilities. The ability to “get into the game” in a more visceral way has been a gamer fantasy for a long time. Imagine sitting in an X-Wing and having a space dogfight with a squadron of TIE Fighters. You will have complete control of the craft with the controller, but also the ability to look around the cockpit with a full, 3D, 360 degree view by actually turning your head. It is an amazing and exciting concept!


Oculus Rift headset

Practical people may prefer a more pragmatic application.   They can get excited about a full, room simulation that has been created to train teams on bomb disposal. One man puts on the Oculus and is able to walk around in a virtual room, find a bomb, and then relay what he sees to teammates so that they, in turn, can give him step-by-step instructions to diffuse the situation.

What is amazing about the Oculus is how seamless the world is, as the user moves around in it. I was able to walk through a couple of demonstrations of informational simulations that placed me in space, using the headset. The first simulation was called 6000 Moons and described the different uses of satellites, explained how different orbits help facilitate different functions, and gave a very cool visual of what all of the satellites look like as they circle the earth all at once. If each satellite were part of an alien invasion force, we’d be screwed! It looked like a swarming mass of insects around their queen.

Promotional image of 6000 Moons from binsoftware.com


The informational clips were all automated, and propelled the viewer through space at certain times while a narrator explains what the viewer is seeing. Because the technology works through motion detection, a three-dimensional tour can be designed and the world can be viewed at any angle. The immersive effect comes in from the ability to look above and below, and even turn completely around in your chair and still be in space. There are no hard stops to keep you inside a proscribed area. There are no graphical seams or lines depicting programming limits. It’s just you in space. After watching 6000 Moons, my first thought was, “What about a tour of the Solar System!?” So I asked the question and, even though it wasn’t the purpose of the visit, I was shown a beta version of a tour called Titans of Space.

This simulation starts with a view of Earth with the Moon circling it and the Sun ominously close. As the narration went on about the various particulars of our home planet, I was busy looking around. I looked back over my shoulder and was startled when I saw… my shoulder! Of course, it wasn’t really my shoulder. This program had a simulated body to act as an anchor for the experience. I must say that it was a good choice that added to the natural feel. Some trade-off is made for loss of view, but for those like me who suffer from motion sickness, the reference point allows for a much more comfortable tour.

Titans of Space, photo from blog.dcxn.com

After the smaller planets were described, the next planet was Jupiter and here was where the name of the program, Titans of Space, started to make sense. The background music turned ominous and the planet filled the space in front of me. It was imposing and intimidating—feelings I don’t normally associate with a description of the Solar System. I felt compelled to look away to get my bearings and I was rewarded with a view of the Sun behind me and a silhouette of all of the planets I had passed in front of it. I was actually in space! This was not a frame by frame look at a world, in which only the part being focused on is rendered. I was actually being moved through a digital world around objects programmed in relative scale and distance. It was awesome and amazing and by the end of the tour, which went on to describe the largest known stars, I felt very, very small.

The Oculus Rift is coming for mass consumption very soon—right now it is scheduled for release in the first quarter of next year. I’m not sure yet how the gaming world will react. There are a lot of interesting possibilities, but it will take some experimentation to figure out which are good ideas and which are just impractical because of movement limitations. Either way, if this sort of tech is up your alley, it’s coming, and it’s coming fast. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, it’s coming to a museum near you and possibly within the next two months.   You’ll definitely want to see this.

A big thanks to binsoftware and the folks at The Virtual Reality Learning Experience for their efforts in utilizing this new technology for public education and use.

– by Kurt Klein

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Filed under Geek Life, Kurt Klein

CBLDF Response: Pride of Baghdad

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is fighting the good fight against comic book censorship, a problem that has plagued the industry for decades. In order to better educate myself, and by extension Therefore I Geek’s readership, I am starting a periodic series in which I will read all of the books in the CBLDF’s list of banned book case studies and discuss them. These blog articles will take the opportunity to evaluate the material on its own merits, as well as in the larger context of censorship and why these books were banned. To kick off this new series, I’ll be discussing Brian K. Vaughan’ Pride of Baghdad.


In March of 2003, a US led coalition began airstrikes in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. As a result of the airstrikes, four lions from the Baghdad zoo escaped from their enclosure and began wandering the streets. Pride of Baghdad tells the story of these lions, using their journey as an allegory for discussing the invasion itself and exploring the some of the philosophy that surrounded it. At the time the book was published in 2006, the war’s outcome was far from clear, as a civil war was just beginning and the book makes no attempt to predict the future beyond the obvious idea that no matter what the outcome, things will never been the same in Iraq. Continue reading

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Filed under Andrew Hales, CBLDF Response, Comics

Editorial | History and Hollywood: the academic irresponsibility of making big box entertainment based on historical time periods & events

I walk into my office almost twenty minutes early, cursing traffic.  If I leave at 8:00 a.m., I arrive fifteen to twenty minutes early, but if I leave at 8:05 a.m., I will inevitably be five minutes late.  Several of my coworkers are already in the office booting up their computers, getting coffee, and chatting about their weekends.  Amy* wanders over to my cubicle.  “So… I saw that movie Lincoln this weekend,” she says, smiling mysteriously into the coffee she is stirring (That has nothing to do with the story. Amy always tries to smile mysteriously.  No one at work is sure why.).  I give her the obligatory response, “Oh really?  What did you think?”

“It was really good!” she answers, “It really made me think about that time in history.  How brave they were, you know?  Also that one black soldier guy at the beginning was hot.”

Steam begins to pour from my ears.  “It was a terrible movie,” I reply, because I cannot help myself, “Historically it was wildly inaccurate, from the attitudes and behavior of the characters and the details on the uniforms right down to the actual vote by the state representatives.  I almost walked out of the theater.”

Black soldiers in the Union army as depicted in "Lincoln."

Black soldiers in the Union army as depicted in “Lincoln.”

Amy’s eyes widen and she shakes her head.  “Well, I enjoyed it…” she says, her voice trailing off, and she heads back to her desk.

Yes, I’m the office history geek, and I bristle whenever Hollywood decides to make a movie supposedly based on a historical event or even just a story based within a particular historical time period.  For me, going to see a historical movie is almost always just an opportunity to point out the ridiculous details that the movie gets wrong.  However, the problem is that very few people who see these movies realize that there are any errors at all, meaning that they walk away from the theater with a false understanding of history and no motivation to seek out the truth.

Actual black soldiers in the Union army.

Actual black soldiers in the Union army.

Hollywood has built an empire on storytelling, not on truth telling.  As a general rule, movies have no problems bending the truth or even snapping it in half altogether, as in the 1955 release of The Far Horizons, which pitted Meriwether Lewis and his purported love interest Sacagawea against the nefarious French trapper Charbonneau.  If this had been accurate in the slightest, it would have made for a very awkward road trip, as Sacagawea was, in fact, married to Charbonneau.

Not only are filmmakers unconcerned about the accuracy of their storylines, but they also add modern behavior and attitudes to period roles, presumably to allow modern viewers to identify with the characters.  My least favorite trope is the “independent woman” set in a time period when women were not given political rights or even much of a say in anything.  A great example of this is Cate Blanchett’s role as Marion Loxley in the 2010 film Robin Hood.  If the entertainment industry were to be believed, in every historical era (or at least, in every historical era that makes for good screenplay) there have been hundreds of women not only protesting their downtroddenness verbally, but actually taking up arms, or sneaking into lecture halls and mocking the intellectuals there—presumably to make them see that all women are intelligent, sensible, and mature.

However, all the blame for these awful movies cannot be placed at the feet of the movie industry.  The average consumer is also culpable.  At their very best, the uninformed public is simply lazy, preferring to have their facts served up with a disproportional serving of sugary entertainment.  For proof, one need only look at 2001’s Pearl Harbor.  The deaths of almost 2,500 Americans were, apparently, not dramatic enough, so the writers added a creepy love triangle to both thrill and disturb their audience.

At worst, deliberate ignorance on all levels is at epidemic proportions.  As a former high school tutor, I was aghast at the lack of historical knowledge that I found in tenth and eleventh grade students.  In college history classes the ignorance is even more appalling.  By one’s second year in undergraduate education here in the US, it can be expected that a student will have a decent grasp of United States history, but such is not the case.  Students have plenty to say about the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity, but not do even know the name Nathan Hale or John Jay.

While I have heard the argument that these movies and TV shows inspire people to research the history that is presented, I must say that as a whole, the entertainment industry doesn’t point out how far their narrative is from the truth; nor does it make the true stories readily available, and the average person is too lazy to dig for them.  Even if someone were to hear Lincoln’s issues corrected (probably from me!), first impressions generally stick.  It’s much easier to remember the vivid pictures on a 70’ IMAX screen than it is the dry details in black ink on a white page.

I cannot blame the entertainment industry alone for the pitiful lack of historical knowledge in the United States, but I can and will say that it is irresponsible to make so many deliberately inaccurate movies without doing more to make sure the audiences knows that they are not seeing what actually happened.  I also hold each individual responsible for educating themselves about the fascinating subject that is the history of the human race.  Lastly, I put the obligation on those true students of history to speak up when they see inconsistencies and inaccuracies in entertainment.

We have a society that is, as a whole, woefully ill-informed and too lazy to do anything about it; and Hollywood is feeding the problem.  Perhaps with a concerted effort, entertainment can become more accurate, and entertainees can be better educated.

*Name has been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.


Filed under Editorial, Tracy Gronewold