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Teachers who want to use virtual reality but are worried about the expensive VR technology will be glad to know that there are viable ways to make it affordable and accessible to schools with tight budgets.

Here are four low-cost alternatives that you can tap for your school’s project-based learning initiatives:

Desktop Virtual Reality

When discussing virtual reality, what easily comes to mind is the image of a person playing a game while wearing a VR headset. That’s what you call a completely immersive VR experience, and it’s just one of the two primary types of VR. Using immersive VR requires expensive hardware and software, but there’s a cheaper and simpler alternative: non-immersive or desktop virtual reality.

Desktop VR, considered the most cost-effective VR solution, involves using computer programs that create a 3D-simulated world that a student can explore and interact with.

Unlike the sophisticated and highly technical nature of immersive VR, desktop VR uses the traditional computer setup: a standard high-resolution monitor, keyboard, and mouse or trackball for controlling navigation through the interactive 3D environment. Because it doesn’t need costly equipment, a desktop VR program is easy to develop and install from the internet or a CD.

Google Cardboard

Organizing a field trip to another country can be expensive, if not downright impossible, for both schools and parents—not to mention that taking students to a remote place can be a safety risk.

This is where low-cost VR technologies like the Google Cardboard come extremely useful. Making VR more accessible to schools, the Cardboard allows students to explore places as far as the Great Wall of China in the comfort and safety of their classroom.

All you need to implement this simple VR system are a Cardboard viewer that costs anywhere between $7 (for the basic models) and $70 (for the high-end models), a smartphone (students can use their own), and free VR programs that are created with 360-degree cameras.

DIY VR Kit

Low-cost virtual reality alternatives
Photo by K.W. Barrett

Aside from Cardboard, Google also came up with a field-trip simulation software called the Expeditions. This immersive education tool was launched in September 2015 and was initially offered for free to thousands of schools across the globe. The package included smartphones and headsets for students, a tablet that teachers could use to control the simulated tour, Cardboard viewers, a library of virtual tours, and a router for running the software without an internet connection.

However, the Expeditions now comes with a hefty price tag. You’ll need to shell out between $3,999 and $9,999 to purchase a kit for 10 to 30 students.

Fortunately, more affordable VR options are available for budget-conscious school administrators. That is, if you opt to build your own VR kits, which can save you as much as $3,000.

Here are three ways to save on a DIY VR kit:

1. Using Free Smartphones

Instead of buying brand-new smartphones, why don’t you ask your school’s partner organizations, private companies, or even your students’ parents to donate old or refurbished units? For sure, there are people in your community who are willing to support this worthy cause and give away phones they’re no longer using.

Many recent smartphone models work with the Expeditions app (which is free) and a VR headset (which can cost around only $20). With the donated smartphones, you can create VR tour stations for classes in all school buildings.

Students may also be asked to use their own smartphones for this purpose.

2. Buying Inexpensive Smartphones

Another cost-saving option is to purchase low-cost smartphones for under $200. If your school has a Wi-Fi, you don’t need to get smartphones with data plans and buy a router.

3. Using Devices Available in School

Does your school have Android tablets or iPads gathering dust somewhere? Put these mobile devices to good use by integrating them into your DIY VR kits. They’ll work well with the Expedition app without any cost.

Free Educational VR Apps

To further cut down on your VR costs, consider using free VR apps that tackle a variety of subjects and allow students to experience learning in virtual reality. Here are three of the best free VR apps today:

Cleanapolis

Cleanapolis is a fun and interactive app that offers quizzes, games, and an animated video on a very timely phenomenon: climate change.

Anatomyou

A unique and totally immersive learning experience, using Anatomyou is like taking a non-invasive trip inside the human body to get to know better its various systems (e.g., respiratory, digestive, nervous, etc.).

Elements 4D

A unique science-based app, Elements 4D can help students enjoy learning chemistry by showing an animated version of the combined elements and their chemical reactions.

Virtual reality is changing the ways in which we socialize and entertain ourselves. And it will surely impact the ways we educate ourselves and the next generation of learners. Virtual reality is still too costly. But there are plenty of upcoming high end hardware and software offerings that should spur VR growth and drive down costs.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

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