Virtual Reality in the Art History Classroom

I recently become fascinated with virtual reality and the realism I experience by viewing through a small boxlike device- in this case, Google Cardboard.  I wondered if there could be connections made between virtual reality and my survey art history course for students at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY.  I began by searching online virtual reality examples in larger museums and their use in exhibits both online and onsite.  Of course, there were many excellent examples of museum use of virtual reality, however, what I was viewing was contemporary, and typically not applicable to the art history classroom.   Was this even possible to bridge the two?

Virtual Reality is best understood by realizing at its most basic, that it is an optical illusion.  The illusion is accomplished through convincing the participant that you are somewhere else with the use of three methods.  One, tricking the brain (the visual cortex) which perceives motion.   Two, creating an illusion of depth by creating a separate image for each eye, one offset from one another (stereoscopic technology).  Three, use of motion tracking hardware (head-mounted displays) that enclose the user’s eyes, cutting the viewer of from the outside world.

As I was continuing to prepare for the semester, I discovered there was a Google Cardboard icon within the Google Street view app.  After some experimentation, the connection was clear; architecture!  Students could have access to viewing ancient architectural sites to modern architectural styles all with the installation of a few apps and the purchase of a Google Cardboard device.  After making the connection, I developed goals to serve throughout the course and serve as guidelines for using the technology: develop an appreciation of art history through an exceptional visual environment, “transport” the student to the architectural site and develop an enhanced learning experience, and increase the relevancy of art history to 21st century learning by moving away from traditional two-dimensional instruction.

When the class began in the fall, students were instructed to make one purchase, a Google Cardboard device which could be purchased through Amazon beginning at $6.99.  After students purchased their Google Cardboard, we had a day to put the devices together and talk about virtual reality.  I spoke about VR history and its references to the optical illusion devices commonly used in the beginning of the 19th Century.  We delved into a bit of science and shared how this new technology could impact future areas of our lives from the workplace to art and even health care. Students were instructed to install on their cell phones; Google Street View and Google Cardboard apps.  The apps could reamain installed throughout the semester or installed only when needed.  Apps installed were: New York Times Virtual Reality, NYTVR, Google Cardboard-will allow any view using VR by choosing the cardboard icon and Google Cardboard, Google Street View and Google Arts and Culture.

The following class meeting was our first to explore VR using Greek architecture as our first subject.  Instructions were for students to; install Google Cardboard and Google Street View, search the site in Google Street View, choose a photographer that had already photographed the site, click the Google Camera icon in the top right and finally insert the cell phone to view.  In our first dive into VR for Greek sites we looked up: Olympia, Elis, West Greece, Mycenae and Tiryns, Argolis, Peloponnese, and Temple of Apolllo. Bassae, Messenia, Peloponnes.

An unforseen issue we found but quickly solved, was as a result of using the mapping app, Google Street View.  When searching their site, students needed to type explicit locations.  An example might be the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.  The search would need to be typed as Acropolis, Athens, Greece.  If the correct search parameters were not used, any worldwide location of  Acropolis within the name would be returned.

Students viewing the Greek sites for the first time through the Google Cardboard device, the responses ranged from, ‘History was really brought alive”, “I felt like I was there”, and “Google Cardboard showed me a way to see places I have never been in a new way”.

Our second Google Cardboard use was discovering ancient Egyptian sites including pyramids.  Students used a given list of Egyptian monuments and upon completion had a series of follow-up assessment questions to be answered in our class blog.  Students searched; Pyramid of Khufu/Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt, Great Sphinx, Egypt, Pyramid of Menkaure, Egypt, Nefertiti Bust, Egypt.

We utilized our Google Cardboard glasses in four different studies of architectural sites: Greek, Egyptian, Renaissance and 21st Century Architecture.  For Fall 2017 courses, the technology is certain to have evolved from its current offerings.  I have already seen new material in Google Arts and Culture which will make VR more relevant for examining 2D and 3D art examples and the ability to develop VR further into the art history curriculum.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments at



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One response to “Virtual Reality in the Art History Classroom”

  1. Michele says:

    Can we use the cardboard viewer with any smart phone?

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