VirBELA: Bringing Students Together through Virtual Reality

Alex Howland, CEO, VirBELAAlex Howland, CEO
Education is increasingly using technology to enhance and facilitate learning, and the rise of the Internet has moved this technology closer and closer to the student and now, it is just a mouse-click away. That evolution of technology, however, has also limited the social interaction of the classroom. Alex Howland and Ron Rembisz, CEO and Co-founder respectively of VirBELA, LLC and both psychologists, saw the impact of the desocialization of education as a problem and wanted to bring back the face-to-face classroom interaction and experiential learning to the e-learning space. They saw 3D virtual environments as a platform to make this happen. In 2010, their idea for VirBELA won a “Top Innovation Award” from the Graduate Management Admission Council(GMAC) that led to a grant to take the idea from concept to reality.

Today, VirBELA’s mission is to improve the way people learn, collaborate, and innovate together while geographically apart. VirBELA accomplishes this by creating 3D virtual environments with avatars, spatialized voice and text chat capabilities, computer generated campuses with lecture halls, classrooms, social areas, offices, and serious-games and simulations.

For each of its clients, VirBELA sets up an “off-the shelf” or customized 3D private campus. The clients distribute the software to their students and then deliver their own content to students with their own faculty. The campuses, available 24/7, are used for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Students can log in, whether across campus or across the world, to attend a lecture, work on shared documents in small groups, participate in a study group, access resources, or visit a professor during office hours.

Howland says, “In today’s increasingly globally economy, skills in teaming, cultural intelligence, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking are essential. Unfortunately, current eLearning technologies are not fostering these skills. We are passionate about addressing this gap.”

Ron Rembisz, Co-founder, VirBELARon Rembisz, Co-founder
VirBELA’s platform offers a great deal of flexibility for clients to customize the learning environment to reflect their industry–again creating a context for the learning that is based on the real world. Per Rembisz, “If the client is healthcare, the environment could be a hospital or a clinic or if it is a manufacturing organization it could be a series of manufacturing facilities and administrative buildings.” One success story is VirBELA’s work with the Health Science Department at the University of California San Diego to create a serious-game about running a multi-site clinical trial. The game teaches the basic principles of project management in the setting of running a multi-site trial, but also focuses heavily on the team science skills of junior doctors and faculty.

Our mission is to improve the way people learn, collaborate, and innovate together while geographically apart

While the software is currently available on Mac or PC, VirBELA will soon be launching an app to access the environment through devices such as phones and tablets and a virtual reality (VR) version for true 3D immersion starting with the HTCVive and Oculus Rift hardware. VirBELA is also experimenting with connecting the human emotions of the owner of an avatar to the avatar display itself using the students’ laptop camera. For example, your avatar may smile when you smile in real time bringing non-verbal communication into the VR space. Per Rembisz, “To really experience it, you’ve got to go into one of the environments yourself and feel your presence–it’s very different from anything else that I know that’s out there.” A free demo version of the software is available on the VirBELA website.