The Adventure Science Center, located about an eight-minute drive from Vanderbilt University’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee, is an incredibly fun place to explore, learn, and, in my case, work for. I was an exhibit attendant and front desk operator for ASC for quite some time, and in my tenure, I was able to witness first-hand the effects of new media and technology on kids’ education.
One of my jobs was to maintain and run the Blue Max Flight Simulator, which was a two-person pod capable of recreating the flips and turns of a digital roller coaster, or the flight of a fighter jet. The concept was not new- arcades and play places had similar devices in my childhood, but this was the first time I was technologically familiar with the ride. The roller coasters were more like incredibly active movies, in which the viewer watched a tightly shot screen of a digital roller coaster and the pod moved to simulate the drops and flips. The roller coasters were not the most realistic things in the world (we had ones where you rode over space, or through a volcano), but even the ones simulating a realistic experience still gave away their simulation through graphic composition, or through the incredibly loud Red Hot Chili Peppers mix blaring through the speakers.
The fighter jet was user-controlled, with joysticks located on the sides of each seat, and again, the graphics left a lot to be desired. But, the kid’s sense of realism was more than fulfilled by having the pod respond to their joystick movement, actually putting them into a dive or repetitive barrel rolls. Physical movement, it seemed, made up for the pixellated images.
I spent a lot of time watching the rides in the Blue Max bay on the screen on the control panel, listening to the shrieks and swears of passengers, and the weirdest thing happened: it started to get old. I was bored of the standard rides and loops, could repeat the theme music for each ride, and became more concerned with how long it took for patrons to empty their pockets. A child was sitting at the desk next to me playing with the flight simulator that was identical to the one in the pod, the joysticks and buttons controlling a wide array of turns and data. He had figured out, all on his own, how to work the joysticks, shoot, and switch camera angles. And he couldn’t have been more than seven years old.
The ASC recently added a VR center for kids ages 13 and up, and currently has a program designed to put the kid directly in the center of the process of building a skyscraper in downtown Nashville. The equipment was clunky and hard to work with, and more than once, we found minor inconveniences could shut down an entire station. No one wanted to work at the VR station. It was boring. All you did was watch people hooked into a complicated system raise and lower their hands and turn around in a blank, empty space. But in the players’ eyes, they were lifting cross beams, choosing window styles, and directing cranes.
It is a strange feeling to work with VR, to see the detached human side of the virtual playground, and it is easy to get bored with it, like it is with any job. But, looking back, the extent to which VR incorporated itself as a normal part of our lives and work environment was disconcertingly quick (the new exhibit was installed in a month, we were trained for a week, and then it went live). It raises a lot of questions for me about the future of this sort of technology, and the ease with which we adapt to it. Where do we go from here?