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Deontay Williams (far left) and Shalin Jewitt (far right), employees of the Virtual Reality company Lobaki, Inc., are shown working with students Reed Kellum and Nina Sun at the Extended Reality Lab at Jackson Preparatory School. Courtesy of Lobaki Inc/MBJ

Jackson Prep makes history and other subjects come alive with virtual reality programs

By BECKY GILLETTE

The Jackson Preparatory School is doing some unique things with its virtual reality (VR) laboratory. The school is using VR programs to enhance teaching while also training students in the rapidly-growing industry that is expected to have an economic impact of $100 billion by 2021.

Adam Mangana, director of the Extended Reality Lab at Jackson Preparatory School, has been invited to go around the country and present programs about the VR program at Jackson Prep. There have also been representatives from schools from New York to California interested in visiting to learn how VR is being taught and integrated into the school community at Jackson Prep.

VR uses electronic equipment such as a headset with a screen inside and gloves fitted with sensors to mimic real life. One interesting use of VR is called body transfer where you are an avatar who can actually have a different color skin and experience something from a different perspective.

“We are doing a lot of cool things,” Mangana said. “It is easier to explain when you have a headset on. During the Martin Luther King holiday time, all of our 11th and 12th grade history class students went through a VR experience, ‘I am a Man,’ where they went back to Memphis in 1968 in the context of the assassination of Martin Luther King. It is one of the best ways to teach empathy. We are using this technology to bring more social cohesion. There is an intersection between cultural competency and VR.”

It is also being used to teach engineering. The engineering class used VR to visit the bottom of the Hoover Dam to explore how hydroelectricity is generated.

“When the kids read about certain things, it isn’t that they are apathetic,” Mangana said. “But it is so distant. When they walk through the experience, it is emotionally relevant. Kids are very responsive to the relevancy, which is a different perspective on walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Our kids are already connected globally and it is the goal of the school to teach students how to deal with people not only virtually, but in person. At Prep, we are a place committed to fostering leadership. And we find that it is just as important to develop EQ (emotional quotient) as it is to develop IQ (intelligence quotient).”

Mangana said what VR really does is hack time and space. He can’t take students to see the Northern Lights in Norway. It would be price and time prohibitive to fly them there. But in VR, students can be completely immersed in an experience like seeing the Northern Lights.

“The learning becomes a lot more relevant,” he said. “It gives kids exposure to things that in the past would have been price and distance prohibitive.”

Jackson Prep is also creating a VR curriculum for students and teachers. The intention is to create an institute where teachers can be trained and equipped to run VR programs across the state.

“We see it as a very important emerging technology,” Mangana said. “One of things we are trying to pull off is we want to curate already existing VR experiences and make learning more efficient.”

Students at Jackson Prep have been working with two graduates of the VR Academy in Clarksdale. They are employees of the VR production company Lobaki, Inc. Deontay Williams and Shalin Jewitt initially began to tutor Jackson Prep students in VR development.

“A relationship developed from that,” Mangana said. “Now they are working building 3D projects together. We have been doing some really interesting work partnering with the students from  Clarksdale who have moved to Jackson.”

There are important business applications for VR. Mangana said it can help solve some human capital problems for business. Training happens much more easily and more efficiently in VR and there is a higher level of engagement. You can’t be on your cell phone in VR.

“If you are trying to train people how to cook chicken properly at a chain restaurant, you can put the participant into an escape room,” he said. “They have to go through the proper steps cooking the chicken to get out of the escape room. Let’s give people skills in a much more deliverable format. Instead of a two-dimensional video, with VR you can be actually work in the same space and be on different sides of the world. You can shake hands in virtual space and work collaboratively. You are going to see a lot more training and education happen in the metaverse (the virtual universe).”

In terms of investment, currently there is a lot of business-to-business and business-to-government applications being developed. Mangana said the technology is a few years from having a lot of business-to-consumer applications. But there have been a couple of breakthroughs with hardware now that make VR more affordable. And there are ways to speed up the development process.

“Instead of writing code for a tree or neighborhood, you can take existing things from games,” Mangana said. “What is amazing about VR development versus traditional coding is so many types of learners can be involved. It is much more like making a movie than making code. For example, you need folks who write the scripts and lighting specialists. You do need some pure code. But so many more types of kids can be engaged in the technology. That is what is so compelling about VR versus traditional app development.”

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About Becky Gillette