Go east in Brooklyn, New York, past the blockchain software startups, gentrified co-working spaces and Edison-bulbed cocktail bars, and you reach Brownsville. In a former elderly home near the Langston Hughes Houses public housing complex is the Brownsville Community Justice Center. Within that center, more than 40 young people have been toiling for two years on an ambitious project: creating a faithful, block-by-block replica of their neighborhood and many of its residents in virtual reality for their own open-world video game. They've set up a green screen with volumetric scanning equipment, experimented with game mechanics inside an Oculus Rift and learned to develop using the platform Unity. It's an uncommon blend of cutting-edge gaming technology, driven and developed by a hyper-local team in an area where 37 percent of adults have a high school diploma and the median household income is around $25,000.
NEW YORK--Most of the energy spent to date on virtual reality has been around gaming and entertainment. Oculus is rolling out a program with the goal of using VR as an inspiration for social change. Dubbed VR for Good, the program launches with two pilots. In the first, the Facebook-owned company is connecting students at nine San Francisco Bay Area high schools with professional filmmakers, the aim of which is to have the youngsters produce 3-to-5 minute 360 videos about their local communities and what is important to them. Oculus is donating gear to the schools, consisting of Samsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphones, Ricoh Theta S 360 cameras, plus access to editing software.
The principal calls this a mindful school. Johane Ligondé is effusively warm but with the kind of emotional solidity you'd expect from someone who wakes each morning to manage more than 1,000 kids at the only public middle school in the village of Freeport in Long Island, New York. She is also an aromatherapist and life coach who hangs a sign reading "I AM AN OPTIMIST" in her windowless office. At John W. Dodd Middle School, some of the students' primary struggles are common to many young teenagers: depression, anxiety, self-harm and the looming shadow of sudden violence. So every morning during homeroom, a student or staff member leads the entire building through eight minutes of breathing meditation over the PA system. In detention, students are "invited," Ligondé said, to do mindfulness exercises, "so it's not just a space for punishment, it's a space for reflection." A "social-emotional learning curriculum" has been introduced, teaching them conflict and relationship management. At 11 AM, four periods into a drizzly Wednesday in June, Ligondé watches seventh graders shuffle in for science class and take their seats between model skeletons and posters of plant-cell structures. Some stare blankly into the middle distance. Their assignment is to meditate. Half the students slump their foreheads into the crook of their arm, resting on top of tables or thick ring binders. They are the control group. The other half strap on purple, cardboard VR headsets and clip pulse monitors to their fingers. The teacher, Vanessa Vidalon, turns down the lights, and the class hushes, save for some snapping of elastic headbands over white earbuds and the clacks of phones dropped on desks.
Jyostna Kadimi helps a woman try out Recall, a virtual reality memorization experience she helped create. If you've ever seen a 360-degree interactive Facebook video or played a game while wearing a pair of thick square goggles, you've already experienced the buzz-worthy technology known as virtual reality. Virtual reality immerses users in alternate environments and provides a 3-D space in which users can control how they interact with games, stories and other experiences. Facebook's newly released Oculus Rift has helped make the technology more commercially accessible, and journalists at USA TODAY are using it to package information in an entirely new format. Even YouTube is rolling out 360-degree experiences.
Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission. As our regular reality has gotten weirder and weirder, virtual reality has become more and more interesting. Whether you're using one of the dedicated headsets like Oculus or a less invasive alternative like Google Cardboard, VR is having a moment. And with good reason: it's never been cheaper or easier to join the VR bandwagon and there are finally some interesting use cases. This collection of five courses hopes to teach you how to become a well-paid VR developer.