Business Unusual

The Latest – and Unlikeliest – Man to Reinvent Online Education

  • ---Shares

It’s dusk. New York City’s streetlights have just flickered on. You cross the street, dodge a trolley and a Model T, and pass the legendary Lafayette Theater where a live performance of Macbeth is in mid-swing. You walk on, into the wail of a Jazz riff that signals a frenzy yet to come.

You arrive at your destination – the Cotton Club – and stand for a moment in the patch of sidewalk lit by its iconic, neon sign. The doors open, revealing the elegant ballroom dotted with palm trees and mocha-skinned chorus girls, circulating through the club’s all-white clientele.

Welcome to Harlem at the height of its renaissance. More specifically, welcome to a virtual representation of Harlem, as it existed in the 1920s, built to scale on the virtual reality platform Utherverse (similar to the better-known Second Life). It’s a preview of what’s possible in online education, a sector that has yet to tap into its promise. And this preview is brought to you from a very unlikely source: adult entertainment pioneer Brian Shuster.

Related: Will Tomorrow's Entrepreneurs Learn With Virtual Reality?

A racy start

Brian Shuster is an online veteran, one who started his career back in the mid-90s when the web was something of an X-rated Wild West. In 1995, Shuster and his personal trainer invested $700 to launch XPics.com, a search engine for adult content that made money by directing traffic to individual porn sites. A little more than a year later, the site generated $10 million in monthly revenue. Racy content drove that site’s growth as users accessed adult pictures and video anonymously, online. And with every click and amateur photo, they fueled the growth of the web itself.

As the web evolved, Shuster learned more about the platform’s idiosyncrasies, like how he could make more money advertising for his competitors than they could selling their own product. From there, he leapt into the then-nascent online advertising market, first creating banner ads and then rotation scripts, he says. He filed and received a host of patents, including one for the pop-under ad (causing MSNBC, in 2007, to misidentify him as the “pop-up prince”). These continue to bring him considerable sums in licensing revenues every year.

Through this decade-long career, he realized that while the web is great for solo-projects like data entry or blog posts, it can be an isolating experience that causes the brain to sink to, in his words, “its lowest base instincts.” A connected experience, on the other hand, would bring the Internet to the mainstream, and answer a question that obsessed him: ‘What is the web good for?’

In those early days, he repeatedly met with dubious venture capitalists who couldn’t understand why a normal business person – a florist, for instance – would ever want their own website. “But what if you could virtually walk around a florist’s shop and assemble a bouquet online?” he remembers thinking. “Then they’d be interested.”

And so it happened that in 2006, at the height of the Second Life craze, Shuster founded Utherverse, a virtual world platform that today has 750,000 active users where avatars can decorate their own virtual worlds, as well as visit the seedy Red Light Center to engage in a panoply of virtual sexual acts.

The project had some G-rated surprises. Those in virtual worlds wanted the same things online as they did offline: connection and a sense of purpose. Says Shuster, “Within a virtual world, people tended to be community oriented, organically supplying information to other users.” Shuster and his team began creating tools to help them better connect – features such as forums and voice capability – all to satisfy users’ desire to teach and learn from one another.

It’s this adult playworld that sets the stage for Shuster’s most ambitious pivot yet:  “Educating the world.”

The Latest - and Unlikeliest - Man to Reinvent Online Education

A virtual convention hosted on the Utherverse platform
Image credit: Brian Shuster

Education, virtualized

The idea of a Virtual Harlem began with Bryan Carter, a professor at the University of Arizona who teaches Introduction to African American Literature. He first experimented with building a virtual ‘20s Harlem back in 1997, updating it continually as the available technology improved. At one point, it existed on Second Life, but when the platform eliminated its discount membership for educators and non-profits, he contacted Shuster’s development unit to see if they could build it there.

He’d come to the right place. Unknown to Carter, when Shuster was an undergrad at UCLA in the eighties, he would stay up late, engaging in impassioned discussions with classmates on how to fix America’s education system. Even pre-Internet, Shuster was convinced that classrooms needed a more interactive, narrative-driven approach to learning. He envisioned a video series, where students could learn about the Revolutionary War, for example, by tracing a historical character through key events. “That would have certainly left a more lasting impression than dry facts pulled from a textbook,” Shuster says.

Since their first contact, the Carter and Shuster have forged a surprising partnership, keeping in touch through email and periodically meeting in-person at immersive education conferences around the world, most recently at the Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds in Prague. This January, they are both scheduled to speak at a conference in Vancouver, Canada.

"Brian's a businessman, but he's also incredibly passionate," says Carter. "He gets very worked up when it comes to the educational possibilities virtual reality offers."

Related: Smoke and Mirrors: Why We Aren't Seeing More Digital Zombies Like Michael Jackson

It’s easy to see why. Carter’s class gives a glimpse into what's possible. For years now, a percentage of Carter’s university classes have taken place entirely online. During a typical session, Carter’s students meet at pre-selected spot in Virtual Harlem (usually inside The Dark Tower, a mansion-like literary salon where the walls are covered in poetry by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen) for a brief lecture. After that, they're free to disperse and explore nearby cultural landmarks from the era, such as the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, where they encounter (and often impersonate) literary historical figures from the time, including Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. There are no final essays, just a final project. One year a team built a virtual museum celebrating the Harlem Hellfighters, the World War I infantry regiment credited with bringing jazz to Europe.

The Latest - and Unlikeliest - Man to Reinvent Online Education

Virtual Harlem at night
Image credit: Brian Shuster

Immersive experiences like Virtual Harlem, Shuster believes, could grow into a universal education of sorts. He points to the massive online open course movement, where elite universities such as Harvard and MIT have put course lectures online, available to anyone with Internet access, but stipulates tha virtual reality would provide the immersive experience MOOCs are missing. “With Utherverse, we can build a system that is not concerned with where you live. If you are a brilliant clothing designer, artist, or mathematician, you can be educated through our platform," he says. In other words, Shuster sees a chance to help “equalize educational opportunities for every person on the planet.”  And in his mind, Utherverse will pave the way. 

A dose of actual reality

By its very nature, virtual reality makes the impossible possible, doing away with inconveniences such as gravity and death, and allowing students to virtually travel through space and time in order to interact with art, history, and science in immediate, personal ways. Through virtual platforms like Second Life, Meshmoon, AvayaLive and Utherverse students can do everything from take a 3-D tour of an ancient Egyptian burial ground to travel through the human body Magic School Bus-style.

Unfortunately, the sweeping predictions of the ‘90s that the education revolution will be virtual have fallen far short of reality. In more than 15 years, Bryan Carter is only one of a handful of university professors to incorporate the technology into a curriculum.

So, what went wrong? In part, the visuals have never caught up with the promise. “The graphics are still terrible,” says Aaron E. Walsh, the director of the Immersive Education Initiative and a professor of virtual reality at Boston College. He has a point. Even in Carter’s virtual Harlem, a leader for its genre, the graphics are clunky and off-putting. Like most virtual projects, the scenes look dated, like a still from the Sims, circa 2004. For students familiar with the movie-like visuals in top-tier games such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, learning via virtual reality is a hard sell.

Even the biggest, best-known virtual world platform, Second Life, has been losing steam since 2006. This world and others (even Utherverse) remain visually dated and are still too tied to adult content to be anything but “dicey” for educational purposes. (Walsh admits he only uses Second Life to with college-aged students because “inevitably, you will find yourself in a sexual situation.”)

And educational technologies can’t keep up with the $93 billion consumer market. Leading publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision have teams of 100-plus employees who spend years designing games that can cost hundreds of millions to make. As an example, for its 2011 release of L.A. Noire, Take Two Interactive took months to recreate 1940s Los Angeles right down to its traffic patterns. Efforts like these consistently go to entertainment, not education. “All the eggs go into that basket,” Walsh says.

Beyond that, without a standard virtual reality platform, growth is nearly impossible. The educational game market faced this problem in the 1990s, when the absence of a standard console forced publishers to create multiple editions of learning games for PCs. This expensive dilemma prevented scale and, ultimately, crippled the $800 million 'edutainment' industry. “That's the rub,” says John Taylor, a longtime video game analyst for the Arcadia Investment Corporation. “What are you going to play these [virtual reality] games on? It’s not even a chicken or egg problem, because there’s no chicken yet. Before anyone is going to promote and invest in the software, there has to be an installed base of hardware."

Related: Top 25 Colleges for Entrepreneurship for 2015 (Undergrad)

In Walsh's view, desktop virtual worlds like Second Life “are essentially dead” and will gradually be replaced by web browser technology like WebGL, a computer programming language for rendering virtual worlds that works on all major browsers, without the use of plug-ins. Even Carter, a Shuster supporter, agrees with Walsh that Utherverse won’t be the universal platform for virtual reality education. Because WebGL technology lives on the browser, he notes, users don't have to download a separate, “buggy” client removing a major hurdle to academics using the technology.

Shuster scoffs at all this. He points to WebGL’s lack of infrastructure, saying that the only people who can create content for WebGL are technology experts, not your average user. But mostly, he doesn’t even dignify the thought with a response. There are too many deficiencies with that stance, he says “to even get into it."

The hype cycle continues

This March, virtual reality got an important boost. Facebook bought Oculus, a leader in mounted VR headsets, for a staggering $2 billion. Suddenly, predictions detailing how immersive virtual reality would transform the entertainment industry, along with the advertising, medical, military and yes, education industries, once again reached a fever boil.

Countless stories depicted journalists describing the truly immersive experience of wearing Oculus while strapped to motion sensors: “I am completely alone, except for a grey animated rat chasing after a large orange hat,” Kadhim Shubber recently wrote for the Guardian. “I turn my head to watch as a gust of wind blows the hat and can't help but stumble after the rodent, arms outstretched like a toddler taking its first steps.”

Understandably, a fully immersive 3-D experience has educators salivating. When asked about virtual reality mounted headset’s ability to transform online education, Anant Agrawal, the CEO of edX, a non-profit massive open online course provider founded by Harvard and MIT, is quick to paint a picture of a near future where students from all over the world interact in virtual classrooms; eventually, he predicts, senses like smell and touch will be virtually recreated. “The millennial generation grew up on video games and virtual reality. Why shouldn’t education be just as engaging?”

Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Oculus, has actively added to the hype. In his view, Oculus Rift and education are an obvious fit. In January, Palmer Luckey told Gamespot.  "What if you could send not college students, but any person of any age to go see the ruins as they exist today and as they existed during the height of the Roman Empire -- that's something that's impossible to do today...You could throw as much money as you want at it and it can't happen. I think virtual reality will make that possible."

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this September, another co-founder, Brandon Iribe chimed in. “There’s this thing that happens when you see really great VR. And most of the world hasn’t seen it yet.” He adds, “We believe this is going to be one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time. I know, it’s easy to say, hard to prove. But time will tell.”

Again, these are not new predictions. Virtual reality headsets have been around since the late 1980s – "the concept was the same, they even looked strikingly similar," says Walsh. Still, in the wake of Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus and the development of competing VR headsets from Sony and Samsung, enthusiasm is bubbling to the surface again, with predictions that immersive reality will be widely accessible within the year. “The technology behind virtual reality has moved at a snail’s pace for the last 15 years or so,” Jeremy Bailenson, who founded the virtual reality human interaction lab at Stanford, told Forbes. “Only up until the last two years have we seen drastic changes in the technology.”

The Latest - and Unlikeliest - Man to Reinvent Online Education

Aaron E. Walsh teaching remote students in one of his first immersive classes at Boston College in 2006
Image credit: Aaron E. Walsh

Taylor forecasts a major shift by 2017, when the price for a VR headset and tracking devices drops to somewhere in the $299-$399 range. He says once the hardware becomes affordable and the user base is large enough, publishers can develop game titles specifically designed for VR headsets (instead of simply adapting pre-existing games for VR play, which will happen first). That’s when the real innovation will emerge: “Anytime you have a platform change like this, there is an opportunity for someone new to create a totally novel experience,” he says. “The doors open.”

Related: Welcome to the Weird World of Mixed-Reality Gaming

Next steps

For all the buzz that continues to surround virtual reality’s future, an educational landscape where students are equipped with headsets that take them through time and space to learn about science, math, history and art is still at least a decade away, Walsh says. (Remember, virtual reality was ‘about to take off’ twenty years ago.) "I use the word potential: You still have an expensive device that needs to be purchased, appropriate content needs to be developed for it, and teachers need to be trained on it."

That's not to say the technology isn't already being used in high-tech fields for training, albeit for those with large R&D budgets. Military, medical and aviation industries have developed sophisticated educational software that could have broad implications for those preparing for deployment, surgery or piloting a plane. One insurer is using VR to train employees in worker safety. But for now, solutions for colleges and high schools might need to wait.

Shuster remains confident he can fill the gap. His Utherverse team, consisting of about 60 employees based out of Vancouver, Canada, is currently finishing a new iteration of the virtual platform that is compatible with virtual reality headsets, like Oculus Rift. This version, he promises, will boast crisper graphics, richer textures and improved interactivity between avatars, including more sophisticated automated computer programmed bots, which can be used to represent historical figures. It’s tentatively scheduled to launch next spring.

Shuster insists Utherverse 2.0 will be a game changer, a platform capable of bringing immersive education -- through interactive classes like Carter’s -- to the masses, and become the standard platform virtual reality needs to truly take off as an educational industry. In a couple of years, he projects that virtual reality headsets and motion trackers will enable students to "manipulate virtual objects" allowing them to take lab courses.

In 2012, Shuster won a patent for a “scalable” virtual world, i.e. one that can support an infinite number of avatars in a single online region, enabling teachers to virtually lecture millions of students simultaneously. Businessman that he is, he sees the revenue model too, envisioning hundreds of millions of students paying a very low base fees for their courses, with those hundreds of millions of fees adding up.

Shuster says his patented technology, coupled with Utherverse 2.0’s superior graphics, will enable him to change the face of higher education. It’s a claim so large it touches on the ridiculous, but Shuster is sincere: “Education is one of the real extraordinary use cases for immersive environments,” he says, his voice cracking with excitement.

Walsh understands. Shuster – and other VR advocates – insist they can see the dawn of virtual reality-based education system, complete with space and time travel, because they are dreamers, he says. And he’s a dreamer, too. 

“All of the things they predict? They’re all possible,” he says. “It’s just going to happen little by little. We still have quite a ways to go.”

Related: Lending Club's New Front: Loans for Braces and Your Kid's Kindergarten Tuition