“Our universe isn’t just described by math, but it is math in the sense that we’re all parts of a giant mathematical object.” – Max Tegmark
I knew virtual reality was going to make mathematical education more effective. I just didn’t realize it was going to be so beautiful.
With the recent surge of progress and interest in virtual reality, there has been a lot of buzz about virtual reality and education. The idea that we can have virtual classrooms that allow us to take virtual field trips and demonstrate ideas in 3D space has captivated the minds of technologists and educators alike.
Despite that, VR learning applications that have truly captured the potential of this medium have been slow to emerge. Yes, exploring the solar system or the bottom of the ocean in VR is very cool. But until recently, nothing I had experienced truly felt like a gamechanger. Like something that might, someday, fundamentally change the nature of education.
Until, that is, I found my first gamechanging VR application in a strange place:
A graphing calculator. Meet Calcflow.
Calcflow: Your TI-84 Meets Burning Man
Calcflow is a virtual reality application that lets you explore mathematical theorems and scenarios in an interactive virtual reality environment. You can trace the outline of a mobius strip, examine a fluid vector chart or create a three-dimensional graph of a parametric equation.
Like this, but interactive and in three dimensions. Image Credit: Asimzb/Wikimedia Commons
But Calcflow is really more than that.
It’s a tool that allows you to use your brain’s incredible capacity for interpreting 3D spatial objects to help you learn mathematical concepts. It takes an idea or a formula and makes it into an object, rich with depth and complexity. And then it allows you to see how different variations in mathematical concepts affect this wonderful bizzaro world.
It allows you to get into a feedback loop.
I was able to create interesting new patterns and interactions then explore them. I got lost in the numbers, seeing which different combinations of inputs could create different outcomes.
It didn’t feel like boring old math class at my high school. It felt more like getting a new toy. I was able to play, to learn intuitively, to get into flow.
This is going to have huge implications.
The Hidden Language
Mathematics and numbers influence most everything we do.
With the rise of exponential technology and the shift towards knowledge work, basic quantitative literacy is a must have for any student wanting to enter the workforce or executive who wants to get ahead.
But our deep connection to numbers isn’t just a marriage of convenience. The world around us is made of math. Almost everything we find beautiful or fun can be enriched by understanding the secret language of numbers. From the dance of a flowing waterfall (fluid dynamics), to the depth of a Bach concerto (music/set theory) and even the ethereal beauty of a fractal (geometry).
Respecting the importance of numbers allows us to connect more truthfully to the world around us, to be more effective in our work and appreciative of the wonders of our universe. Virtual reality simulations will allow us to dynamically learn these concepts through real (virtual) interactions.
The next generation of learning software is going to turn math into a hands-on activity.
Right now, most kids will tell you that they find math boring. I certainly would have if you had asked me during my high school years, which makes sense since much of the beauty of math is abstract, requiring years of study before it can truly be experienced.
But it doesn’t have to be abstract. We can create mathematical simulations that allow students to enter into creative feedback loops to help them explore and learn new concepts. We can connect these concepts together in interesting and fun challenges that will feel like a combination between schoolyard games and minecraft. The educational techniques of tomorrow are going to turn learning math into a playground.
That means whole generations will grow up with an intuitive sense of quantitative literacy that is entirely lacking today.
By building this deep understanding and respect for numbers into our education system, we may see significant cultural shifts. Today we can all watch and appreciate the extreme mastery of an athlete at the top of their game, even if we are nowhere near their level. It’s hard to do that with math and sciences purely because most high-level feats in those disciplines are so far above any of our heads.
With virtual reality, that may change. Pretty soon, we might all be watching the math olympiads with just as much intensity and excitement as the regular Olympics.
VR math simulations are going to change the way we think about numbers and their connection to our lives. They’re going to create incredibly engaging experiences. And they will forever reshape how we teach and learn mathematics.