These days, more and more students can — and do — opt out of animal dissection in science classes, and not just because formaldehyde smells awful. As fewer kids are morally comfortable with chopping up an amphibian in the name of their education, an alternative will be needed. VictoryXR’s Steve Grubbs offers a solution through VR, and chats with Alan about how XR can be used to enhance education in other ways, too.
Alan: Today’s guest is Steve Grubbs, founder and CEO of VictoryVR, one of the world leaders in virtual reality educational product development. To date, they have created over 240 unique VR experiences, spanning over 50 different learning units, with educational partners like Carolina Biological and Oxford University. They have been able to develop brand new educational encounters for VR users around the globe. Steve is also a member of YPO and was recently featured in an article entitled Virtual Reality Is Transporting Students to the Next Frontier in Science Education. You can learn more about Steve’s company at VictoryXR.com. Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve: Alan, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. We’ve been working in XR Technologies — first virtual reality, and then augmented reality — since 2016. I first tried to headset on near the end of 2015 and it struck me that this type of technology would change the world. And so, we struck out and decided that our field would be education. And so we dug in and figured out how to do it, because at that point it was very difficult to find people; you couldn’t just hire people off the street who knew how to create virtual reality technology. We set to work figuring it out. In September of 2016, I attended a group meeting with some folks in Dallas, and then by January of 2017, we had our first major product in a school. I felt pretty good that we were able to move quickly on that first experience.
Alan: That’s incredible. Let me ask you a quick question. What was the first experience that you tried that inspired you to start VictoryVR?
Steve: Well, it was a MetaVRse product that I downloaded to my phone some time, in Google Cardboard. I am pretty sure I went to the iPhone store and tried a roller coaster — and this had been a few years now. And then I tried The New York Times 360 News reporting on my phone and they both were great, amazing, cool, and so I said, this is something I want to be a part of.
Alan: For those people that don’t know you and VictoryVR, maybe just give us a 10,000-foot view of your mission and why you’re doing what you’re doing, and where you see the company going. Describe your company, the products, and the platform that’s being used.
Steve: We believe that we can change education in a positive way around the world. If you think about it, for decades — I used to serve in the Iowa legislature, and I was chairman of the Education Committee, and we spent a lot of time addressing, how do we improve education? And there were a lot of things we did on the input side, but at the end of the day, what we all know is that if students love to learn, they love what they’re learning — like all of us — then there’s no work in it; you just love to do it, and you immerse yourself in it. We believe that XR Technologies — VR and AR — are the solution to having students love what they’re learning. So we’re creating as much content as possible, aligned to standards, so that teachers can integrate it into their lesson plans, or parents can just simply pull it off the shelf and use it. I have a background in technology. I started my first tech company in 1997, building web sites. I bought a book called “Web Sites for Dummies,” read it over the weekend, and announced to my friends I was a web site builder and–
Steve: Since I was the only one they knew, they really had no choice but to use me. And ever since then, we’ve had an e-commerce company, Victory Store, and mobile app starting in ’09. In 2016, moving into XR technologies was a natural transition for us.
Alan: I noticed that one of the modules that you guys have built is dissections in virtual reality. Tell me how that came about.
Steve: By last summer — and my annual University of Iowa fraternity gathering — one of my fraternity brothers is a assistant superintendent of schools in the Chicago area, and he was a former science teacher. And he said, “you know what we need; there’s a law in Illinois that says students can opt out of animal dissection, but we’re required to provide a viable alternative, and there really aren’t any viable alternatives out there that they’re really great.” So he said, “why don’t you create that?” And I said, “that’s a brilliant use case.” And we went back to my office on Monday, put my team to work — and that was in July — by the start of the school year, first week of September, we had a frog dissection completed and in the marketplace. And that’s when Carolina Biological, the largest provider of animal specimens for dissection, contacted us because they had been looking for a digital product that could simulate what happens in real life. Because in the United States — and I know this is a trend around the world — 60 percent of students can opt out these days. As that trend grows, someone needs to provide that alternative. And I think those of us in the XR community are best situated to do that.
Alan: So, this has really opened up a whole new world of learning for students. What is the most popular of all of the things that you guys have made? What is the one that really resonates with students?
Steve: Well, always the most popular is Adventures in Space, where you get to drive our version of the Millennium Falcon. It’s a pretty cool product. With 48 different science units — dissection and language learning are outside of those — they all start from a place; you might be in a spaceship, you might be in an underwater lab. There’s a lot of different places, but Adventures in Space, you start out in a spaceship, and then you travel around the universe to learn about black holes and quasars, drop down and take a rover and drive around Mars and see the three rovers that are down there that were left that… I guess one is still working, that the United States has dropped on to Mars. It’s a cool way to both learn and do it in an explorative way. Why wouldn’t you love learning about a black hole if you can fly out to one, and take a look at it and learn about it when you’re out there? This is the type of learning that we believe changes the ballgame, and creates a real love for science, and STEM technologies and STEM learning.
Alan: Travelling to space is the one that gets everybody’s attention.
Steve: It is. It’s also we generally put that out there as a free download on the Windows Mixed Reality store and Oculus as well as VIVE. And then if you’ve got a Pico headset, you can also pick it up off of the VIVE Port store.
Alan: I was actually going to ask you about distribution, and how you’re dealing with that. Most of your distribution is through the VIVE Port platform? Or how does it…?
Steve: It depends on how you consider volume and distribution. We’re all trying to figure out the business model — the revenue model — to make something like this sustainable. It’s great to provide a product that can change the world, but if it doesn’t have a sustainable revenue model, then it’s not gonna change the world for very long. We upload our products to all of the major stores, and then we also sell unlimited licenses to schools. So, if a school would like a one-to-one setup with the Oculus Go, where they buy 20 headsets, and then in addition to that, they want a license to our content, we’ll sell them that package. But then they might do dissection, which won’t work on an Oculus Go. It needs a full 6DoF, Nvidia 1060 chip system. So they might have three or four stations for that, and then buy a license to the dissection product. So, between the licenses and what we get paid when people download off the stores; that’s our revenue model, so far. Our hope is to break even this year. We had a nice big bump at the beginning of the year with Microsoft. We’re just continuing to put it together a little here and a little there.
Alan: Excellent. It’s early days, so how are you finding the uptake with schools? Are they looking for a complete solution? Or do they want you to come in with the hardware? With software? Do they want you to train them? How does that look? And was it something that you find you have teams out there getting schools onboard? Or is it happening naturally?
Steve: It’s a little bit of everything, but let me address each of the parts individually. We would rather just be in the software business. But, schools that come to us want both a hardware, software, and platform solution. And so we have to provide those things. And so we do. Having said that, some schools already have their hardware. They’ll go to the Windows store and download the content. Microsoft, in January paid us a sum of money so that they could distribute half of our content for free through their store. So, anyone who owns a Windows Mixed Reality system in a school can download half of our content. But, there are more schools currently that have an Oculus product, either the Rift or the Go. And because of that, some will license it directly from us, but most are going to the Oculus store and downloading content to the headsets. That’s currently how it’s happening. You never know what kind of hardware you’re going to find in a school. But most are working for some consulting on how to put together the whole package. And so that’s where we can step in; show them, here are the pluses and minuses, the costs and the benefits, of a particular hardware. Here’s what we can offer. You know, we have 52 different VR experiences that cover middle school and high school. That’s been our approach.
Steve: If you take all of the schools — so, 100 percent of schools — what percentage do you think of the schools (in the US, anyway) have a VR headset? Or are even considering that? Is it 1 percent? 10 percent? What are you seeing?
Steve: You’re asking this question; as we speak, I am pulling up our survey results. We actually surveyed a fair number of teachers, and I will walk you through the information on that question, because we know exactly — or at least, from our survey — how many people have it. And it’s more than you would think. But we expect by the end of this year, I think it’s 50 percent of schools to have one level or another of some VR in their classroom. Some schools have full systems, right? They’ve bought 20 headsets for a classroom, while other schools have just a little bit. So when we asked the question, “have you tested the use of virtual reality or augmented reality to supplement current classroom teaching?” Fourteen percent said “yes, a lot.” Thirty-nine percent said “yes, a little.” That told us that at least people are moving in the right direction. Then we asked them, “do you think you would rather have a one-to-one solution for the classroom — meaning each student in the class having a headset — or a station-based approach? Twenty seven percent said one-to-one. Twenty percent said station-based. Thirty six percent said yes. Finally — and I don’t want to bore you with a lot of statistics — but here’s the last question I’ll share: when we asked, “do you already have hardware in your schools?” Twenty one percent said they already have it. Seven percent said they would be getting it this year. Twenty two percent said they would be giving it next year. So, if you add those three together — it’s about 28+21… so almost 50 percent, either this year or next year, expect to have the hardware in their schools. Now, in the United States, that’s over 100,000 potential clients. And around the world, the adoption might be a little bit behind that, but I know it’s growing rapidly.
Alan: The market adoption for this in the United States, I think is actually ahead of the rest of the world, with one exception, and I think that’s China. I’ve seen some things coming out of China with HTC VIVE, and they’re really focusing on bringing these systems into the schools. Are you seeing many people in the US using the HTC products at all, or is it mostly Oculus?
Steve: We see a lot of VIVE out there, because the teachers who are true techies all started with the VIVE, and then they would bring their experience with the VIVE into schools. Oculus is by far the most well-adopted hardware. But VIVE is… in fact, I can actually tell you the percentage is, I don’t know why I’m guessing… in the United States, 12 percent have the Oculus Rift, which has been out since 2016. Eleven percent have the Oculus Go, which has been out for less than a year. So that was really interesting to me, and that cost differential is just a big deal; essentially, 23 percent. VIVE is 10 percent. Windows Mixed Reality is 5.7 percent. And then Google Expeditions — which, you can decide if that’s real VR or not — they’re at 31 percent.
Alan: So that’s Google Cardboard.
Steve: Well, no. Google Expeditions is different than Google Cardboard, but they’re close. I mean, you know. It’s close to the same thing. But they have that whole platform attached to it.
Alan: Yeah, so teachers can start and stop the experiences.
Alan: So let me ask you another question about the metrics. Are you seeing — from your experience in students that are using this — are you seeing better metrics around their testing scores? Or better uptake? What are the metrics around measuring the success of virtual reality versus traditional means of education?
Steve: That’s a good question that we get all the time. We have not had a study done specifically with our content. It’s something that we would like to have done, it’s just time-consuming and costly, so it hasn’t been done yet. But, having said that, there are other organizations and groups who have done these studies. And what it shows is that there is a significant increase in retention. On my LinkedIn page, I actually wrote an article — and it’s a little bit old now, and I need to update the article — but it’s called “The Data-Driven Case for Virtual Reality Learning.” There’s been a lot of studies: Oklahoma State, Pearson, HMH, UC Irvine — they’ve all done different studies. And one study showed that there was a 14 percent increase in mean test scores. Another study in China showed that there was a 90 percent pass rate from the group that learned in VR, while there is only a 40 percent pass rate from the group that did not learn in VR. So, pretty much every study shows that there’s either increased retention, better test scores, better results, learning in virtual reality. People always want to know that. I don’t think there’s really a lot of debate whether people learn more when they’re in a distraction-free, immersive environment. But still, it’s going to take some time for that kind of adoption.
Alan: I think it’s interesting that you said that last part of distraction-free, immersive environment, and I think one of the things that — this podcast is around the business applications — but this applies directly to training in business, as well. If you take what you guys are learning in the education side, and apply it to training of employees, and you look at the fact that most training is done either digitally, through a phone app or a web site. What people don’t understand is that people’s phones are on them all the time. So you have this constant distraction of second screening, and it takes people’s focus away. When you’re in virtual reality, there’s no way to look at your phone; you are completely immersed, and you’re in, 100 percent doing that. I think just that focus alone makes it a much more powerful medium to teach people.
Steve: Yeah, even if there were no other benefit, just the distraction-free learning is a big piece of that. We have a development company that does corporate training VR for companies — we’ve done projects for two Fortune 500 companies; I can’t necessarily name them — but what they are looking for is a way to… what we call, the RIDE theory. Any training where they rarely have to do that training, whether it’s impossible to train for it — so for example, like at a nuclear power plant, a nuclear meltdown; it’s impossible to train for, except in a virtual or textbook environment. Or maybe, for example, like an oil leak at an underwater oil platform. These things are impossible to train for. So that’s the “I.” “D” is dangerous. So, for example, a power line that has come free due to a storm and is on the ground then wet. That’s a dangerous training environment, but can be done in virtual reality. And then finally, expensive. There are certain things that are very expensive to train for, and you can reduce the cost dramatically through virtual reality, and in some cases, augmented reality. For businesses, if they keep that acronym — RIDE — in mind, that’s a good way for them to create a framework for decision making in which of their training areas could sustain the expense of creating a VR version of it, versus those that maybe you stick with what you’re doing now, with videotapes or reading or person-to-person training.
Alan: What was the “R” for? I apologize.
Steve: Sometimes you don’t have time. When you take people into a training scenario, and you really only have time to train them on the things they are going to encounter the most. For example, restaurant training. There’s a lot of things to train a new employee on, but having a heart attack and rolling around on the ground is not something that happens very often in a restaurant. So, it probably doesn’t receive training. That’s something you could create in virtual reality. Various rare instances that people can go and train for and know how to use the defibrillator, or whatever the case might be.
Alan: One of the ones that’s getting the most media attention is Walmart using virtual reality for their training. And one of the things they’re training on is Black Friday sales. Happens once a year. It’s madness. It’s mayhem. And being able to train people how to manage that, this thing that only happens once a year. You can’t really train for it. So it is rare, and I get it; rare, impossible to train for, dangerous, or expensive — RIDE, I think, is a really great acronym. I think that is a great value proposition for everybody listening. So, thank you.
Steve: Yeah, and I didn’t come up with it, but once I read it, I said, that’s perfect. And on the Walmart side, big shout out to Andy Mathis at Oculus, who put that whole deal together. Having Walmart in the ballgame really helps all of us in this field.
Alan: Absolutely. I think it also springboarded everybody to think about, “oh, wow, this can be used for all sorts of different things.” It was a great thing for the whole industry, and Oculus led that. But if it wasn’t for the Facebook acquisition of Oculus, I don’t think there would be as many companies… I don’t think this whole VR and a AR explosion would have happened as quickly. It would have happened, just not as quickly. I think that caught everybody’s attention.
Steve: Yeah, I think you’re right. And having the big players involved certainly helps to drive the process, but they certainly need small players like us, VictoryXR, to help drive the content side.
Alan: I think the barriers to entry with this are rapidly coming down, and one of the big ones is content. And you guys seem to be hammering that one and nailing it properly. So, hats off to you guys on that one.
Steve: Thank you.
Alan: What are some of the challenges around, let’s say, a school wanting to bring this in? What are the some of the things that school boards or schools individually can start to think about and plan for, when they’re planning their strategy? Say they want to say, “we want to buy 100 VR headsets, but we know if we buy them, by the time they get shipped to us, they’re going to be obsolete.” How does a school plan for that? And what’s your advice around that?
Steve: Well, obsolescence really isn’t an issue. Will there be a better widget on the market? Yes. But when you buy a car, will a better car come out the next year? Yes. But does it make your existing car obsolete? Absolutely not. Whatever hardware schools purchase, the content is going to work just as well on that hardware for years to come. And at the right time, one can upgrade. But getting back to the challenges, the first challenge is cost. You’re probably not going to spend less than $10,000 to get in. Now, you could buy one Oculus headset with content for $500. So there’s certainly the ability to dip your toe in the water and test it out, for as little as $500. But to outfit one classroom they could cart, that can be moved from classroom to classroom; you and spend a minimum of $10,000. So that’s challenge number one. Having said that, pretty much every school district, every school, has a technology budget, and a curriculum budget. So it’s just a matter of prioritization.
Challenge number two is integration into the classroom. Most teachers are generally — like all of us — there’s momentum, and they’re going to be moving in the same direction, doing things the way they’ve been doing them for a long time. So this requires a different level of work. There’s a certain amount of hassle to get technology working, and to get it working for every student and make sure they can all use it. So there’s some challenges there. Professional development — training teachers — is a big piece of it. We actually have a person on our staff, Rene Gadelha. She’s a curriculum specialist. She formerly worked for Pearson, she’s formerly a classroom teacher, she served on the school board in two different states. She is the perfect person [for this]. And when somebody purchases our content, or they just want to hire her to come in, she’ll fly in and do professional development around virtual reality. That’s that’s our solution to problem number two. By the way, our solution to problem number one is we also have a grant writer on staff, who helps schools find grants, and helps them write them, if need be.
Problem number three, it’s a problem that’s coming down quickly. Initially, you had to have a very high-end graphics computer. You basically to have a $1000 computer to run a virtual reality system. And every school I went to said, “well, we’ve got some really good computers. Can we just use those?” I would have to say, “unfortunately, no.” And in fact, I never found a school that had a computer with a 1060 Nvidia chip. So it requires them to buy this high-end computer. Well, with the Oculus Quest coming out soon — the VIVE Focus, the Oculus Go, the Pico headsets — all of that is becoming less of an issue, if they want to just buy a headset for $400-$600. People can do that now without having to have the big computer attached.
Alan: Any other challenges? So, you’ve covered costs, which you guys are mitigating with grants; integration into the schools, which you guys are covering with professional development; and then, the need for high-end equipment, which — I think — the barrier to entry is being rapidly knocked down by these standalone units that are coming out. Are there any others that you found?
Steve: There are minor challenges. Proper training in hygiene with headsets is important. That’s just a small training issue that we need to be aware of, and we need to teach. So, you know, if you get past those first three issues… if there’s a fourth, it might be the amount of content out there. But at this point, there’s quite a bit of content. Now, the downside is, there’s a limited amount of standards-aligned content, and schools really do look for it to be aligned to the NGSS, or Canadian standards, or whatever the case might be. But there’s a lot of content, and there’s enough standards-aligned content to alleviate those issues. Do we have a lot in history and some of those things? Not yet, but it’s on its way.
Alan: Amazing. What is one experience that you, personally, would love to see in VR?
Steve: I would love to be able to stand in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg, and experience it in true, simulated VR. And I don’t know if our graphics chips are quite there yet, but they’re close. That is something that would be just amazing to experience; different moments in history, while standing right in the middle of them (and not getting killed, which would be awesome as well).
Alan: [chuckles] Absolutely. We don’t want that. Well, this has been phenomenal. We’ve learned tons about the statistics and what people are using it for, how schools are bringing this [to the classroom], barriers to entry, the challenges, how to overcome these challenges. Is there anything else that you think listeners would need to kickstart their foray into bringing virtual and augmented reality into the classroom? Or into their HR or training arm of the business?
Steve: So, definitely. We didn’t talk about AR yet. And at the NSTA — which is in St. Louis, is the National Science Teachers Association; I think it’s in about four weeks — we will be rolling out our augmented reality products, and they are so amazing right now. I know that that’s what I should be saying, since I’m the founder, but I’m just telling you; they are so cool. The first product we’ll roll out is textbook AR. In each chapter of a book, there’s usually one really challenging concept — like photosynthesis, or cellular regeneration. Whatever the difficult topic is, what we are doing is creating an augmented reality experience, so that you’re reading through a textbook, be it digital or paper-based, and when you come to certain parts of the book, you can hold your phone over it and a teacher will pop up. In our first one, it was being able to look inside the human cell. You got a human cell that pops up, and you can touch different pieces of it, and the nucleus will come out, or the golgi will come out. And you can really both see how they work, and hear a description of how they work.
But you really get this amazing teaching tool through AR. We will also have an anatomy product, where the parts of the body will rise from the human torso. And then you can touch them and learn more about them. You can look at them in 3D, and ultimately, you’ll be able to see a cross-section of them, look inside them. And then we have one more product; I’m not announcing quite yet, but it’s going to be amazing. So, we’re excited about this, and we think that people at NSTA and elsewhere are just going to love it.
Alan: I think you’re right. I think this is going to be a really big thing. Now, is this something that you’re aiming towards the tablets that are already in schools? Or is this something that you’re aiming towards students using their own devices? Or both?
Steve: It’s their own devices. I mean, you could certainly use the tablets that are already in school, assuming they are AR-enabled. But for the most part, if you have a textbook — whatever form your textbook takes — you should be able to whip out your phone, and hold it over certain parts of that textbook, and have this special AR learning experience pop up. And really, it makes learning more interesting and… “immersive” is not really the right word, but it allows you to interact with that learning, and that it could be a big game changer.
Alan: It’s very interesting that you’re talking about this, because we interviewed Charlie Fink, author of Metaverse and Convergence, and they are two books about virtual and augmented reality that have AR-enabled parts of them. So it’s really interesting that, this whole idea of bringing a static, flat textbook to life using augmented reality is fantastic. And something that we’ve been working on the background is a platform that it would allow anybody to make their own interactions on this. I think it’s very timely and I think it’s going to be really big for textbooks.
Steve: It’s going to be huge. So huge. Children’s storybooks, everything. I just think that this piece of AR will grow quickly.
Alan: I agree with you 100 percent, and they say by the end of 2019, there will be over 2-billion AR-enabled smartphones on the market. So, I think the market definitely has penetration, and it’s a lot larger than virtual reality headsets. But, I think it’s that early thing that gets everybody’s attention. And because the technologies are so similar, it’s just a natural progression, from augmented reality to virtual reality, and then eventually glasses and that sort of thing.
Steve: Absolutely. I’m with you on that.
Alan: Well, Steve, is there any problem in the world that you want to see solved with XR?
Steve: Well, there’s a lot of problems. I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world a lot, and one of the things that we will get to do through XR is we will get to spend time with people in other countries without travelling to those countries. We’ll be able to interact in their communities in ways that we never could before. And it will be cool, but it will also bring the world together. The more you realize that the Chinese are wonderful people — when I travel, you just see, people are wonderful — and it will tear down barriers between countries, and I think it will make the world a better place. Maybe I have my John Lennon glasses on, but I just think that AR/VR have the possibility to really break down barriers between groups of people.
Alan: I just want to ask you one more question. What is one thing that you’ve seen in this industry that you’ve been really blown away by? Because I mean, you’ve probably seen a lot, and you guys have built a lot. What is something that you’ve seen that just made you go, “wow, this is incredible?”
Steve: There’s still so much. When I was in Beijing and I first participated in multiplayer virtual reality, and me and three buddies went on a spaceship and fought aliens? That was the experience that blew me away more than anything else in the world. Of our own experiences, the first time I picked up our frog dissection — our floppy frog — that is the thing that people are just blown away with, in our experiences, is just the realism of what you’re experiencing, and the ability to interact with your friends, and others that you may not know, inside VR. It just blows my mind.
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