Crayons, Cardboard, and Virtual Reality

Teaching children to be creative is easily done through play. In fact, it is impossible not to be creative once you enter a state of play [1]. Children play intuitively and therefore possess this native creativity that is observable when they are playing. The challenge with new technology adoption in learning environments is integrating pedagogies of play with focused learning objectives. If pedagogies of play are adopted first, the integration can occur with less frustration. However, in the absence of play-pedagogies, new technology can be presented to young learners as serious tools, leaving out the toy quality they possess.  This can be detrimental for both the educator and the learners, for it is often through play that we find the greatest innovation and creativity. If we want to be creative with our technology usage, we should allow our technical tools to also be technical toys for learning.

VR’s challenge to become a learning-toy in the classroom is partially due to the hefty price tag associated with the hardware. The commercial versions of VR head-mounted displays, which are essential for the VR experience (such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive) range on average $500 running on a PC, with special requirements that specified out could cost well over $1000 to purchase.  Even with rapid drops in price, high-end VR is far from being adopted rapidly in formal K-12 educational settings at the pace tablets have been adopted over the last decade. Luckily, though, VR comes in many forms and facets.

Photo Credit: Google “[Part of the DIY instructions for Google Cardboard]

The alternatives to high-end VR experiences are those that run off of a typical smartphone aided with the in-expensive hardware of a cardboard device. Google Cardboard, as the name suggests, is a simple crafted device that holds a phone to transform the screen into a simple (yet powerful) head mounted display. The device utilizes the phone’s native accelerometer and gyroscope to update the screen’s image to match the head movement of the user. The screen is then split horizontally for each eye to present a “stereoscopic” effect for the viewer. Similar to the way classic “view master” toys worked, the headset gives the illusion of objects seen in the third dimension. In fact, Mattel recognized this and updated their classic “View-Master” to perform along the same line as the Google Cardboard with their “View-Master VR.”

While Google Cardboard and other mobile-based VR headsets have made VR affordable for the classroom, early adoption of these devices have primarily focused on passive learning experiences. Content is delivered to students in a way that makes them laid-back consumers. Students enter immersive environments and receive information in this dynamic new way, but are then left with little feedback or structure to internalize what they have learned. This approach positions VR as yet another “media tool” that if left untouched becomes nothing more than a 3D gaming or video playing device. Immersive media can be much more, and the power of it as a “learning toy” comes when we use it through constructionist play. Students need to be empowered to use VR to make things, and it is through the making that learning becomes dynamic [2].

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[student design for Google Cardboard based on Dr. Seuss stories]

The entire activity-arc of a constructionist approach to VR begins with the making of the head-mounted display. Google’s Cardboard Device can be purchased through various online outlets, but they also provide the schematics for teachers and students to download and fabricate themselves. As constructivism suggests, learning happens when students are given the ability to construct his or her knowledge through creative making.  Making VR headsets then is the first step for students to be creators rather than consumers of VR experiences.

This making stage is very powerful because it also situates the learner at the crossroads between hardware and software design. The construction of the Google Cardboard is the hardware component; the drawing of panoramic images (that we will discuss later) represents the content, or software side of the experience. Together they offer the learner a holistic design activity that intersects several aspects of STEAM learning.  

The specifications given by Google represent the boilerplate design for creating a headset. The design rules include instructions for the spacing of eyes, the placement of lenses, and the proper distance the phone must be held for the image to be in focus. If followed literally, the designer would generate the typical “box-formed” design that holds the phone for the previously described mobile VR experience. Educators can then prompt students to experiment and consider design alternatives. The rules then provide a safe place in the design experience. Students this way can freely take risk and experiment on form, knowing that they can return to the initial design should they get “lost” in their creativity. Furthermore, the play on design rules gives them a firm measurement of success. While they might be free to experiment on variations of a Google Cardboard design, ultimately there is a true feedback loop that tells you if the design actually works.

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[diagram of unwrapped spherical panoramic image]

Designing the VR headset presents a great opportunity for students to learn about fabrication and making through design rules. A design rule operates like a pattern of instruction for many professions including designers and engineers. While some see rules as being stagnant and the opposite of play, rules, in fact, can be the facilitator of play [3]. Rules are what transform play into a game. The next transformation of play to games is very significant in the way rules are used. Rules might be found in free play, but only tacitly; in games, rules are very specific and set the boundaries for what Huizinga [4] calls the “magic circle.” Rules illuminate the structured qualities of play, allowing it to be both computational and creative.

Once students have successfully made their VR devices, they can now turn their attention to content creation. The high-end VR devices often run on software created from very sophisticated software. The programs used to make these VR experiences are akin to the same software used to make professional video games. However, VR experiences can also be created with several low threshold approaches, such as the process of hand-drawn spherical panoramic projections.

Imagine standing in the center of a giant cube, or sphere. Then, imagine that space having a perfect grid drawn on its surface so that everywhere you looked you would see the world from inside this gridded space. Now, imagine cutting that space carefully and laying the entire surface flattened on the ground. That’s pretty much it! A spherical panoramic projection is the flattened and skewed image of a sphere. In the word of photography there are special cameras that can capture these types of images and transform them into a spherical panoramic projection, but in an experimental way, they can be hand drawn too.

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[student creating VR content with the tool Panoform ]

The term “spherical panoramic projections” sounds much scarier and technical than it is. In fact, once users see how it works, they often find it playful and easy to use. The technique that we will describe will allows anyone to make VR content through doodling on paper. The first challenge in the process is to get individuals to think spatially. Spatial thinking for long has been associated with a domain of thought utilized mostly by artist and designers [5]. We call these people “visual thinkers” because their methodology and products often rely on the coordination of eye and hand.

Many educators and students do not realize that computational thinking can play a big part on an individual’s ability to think spatially.  This is understood most prevalently in those that use visual programming languages like Scratch to teach children computer programming fundamentals. By abstracting syntax based computer code into a visual system of blocks and nodes, Scratch enables users to focus on the logic of their programming strategy based on spatial relationships. The human eye is an impressive calculation machine that informs the way we build concepts and understand the world.

The premise behind this type of “visual calculation” is that design can carry with it a set of formal descriptions that articulate the methods carried out to achieve its form [6]. We can think of these formal descriptions as recipes, or algorithms, which are procedural steps that communicate the core components of a design system. Designing with this system-based approach is at the core of what we call today “computational thinking.” Skilled designers know that the process to a solution is not a linear one. Spatial thinking allows for an expanded view of computational thinking, making it flexible, allowing for the user to take into account a larger set of known and unknown factors. The impact spatial thinking has on developing computational thinking is tremendously undervalued. For spatial thinkers, the visual approach becomes very lucrative to introduce them to procedural methods and eventually to learn computer programming.

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[laying out basic forms in unwrapped spherical panoramic image]

With it, we develop abilities to:

  •       Analyze problems that constantly change
  •       Find new solutions based on basic solutions
  •       Construct and procedures flexible enough to respond to the change of the given problem

The hand-drawn approach to creating spherical panoramic projections is critical to a constructionist VR approach. In fact, some creators of high-end VR content are taking to this technique to storyboard and form initial prototypes of their VR designs.

For educators, it presents VR as a medium for students to be expressive and creative.  In a short amount of time, any user will be able to make VR content with pencils, crayons, and a mobile phone. To facilitate this experience, the tool Panoform was created, as an open-source, web-based tool to allow anyone to create VR content with a template and online panoramic image processing.

As users begin the processing of drawing out their compositions, one thing they quickly realize is that what they see on the paper is not how they see things in VR. The process involves some visual reasoning and spatial translation.  Some users have noticeably approached the process with wild discovery, making guesses as to what their drawing will look like once processed into a VR space. Others spend time calculating their drawings with the grid that serves as a guide to the image’s spherical skew. In time, they begin to see the relationship between how a shape is drawn on the page, and how it is warped into the spherical VR space.

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[student creating fantasy creatures for their VR experience ]

Workshop / Case Study

The following is a description of a sample of projects conducted in a summer program for middles school and high school students interested in art and design.  Each exercise was conducted over a six-hour period with a classroom size of twenty students. While students were encouraged to bring their own devices, we did have on hand several Apple iPod Touch devices to ensure every student had access to a VR device.

Exercise One

This exercise presented students with the theme – Fantasy, Space, & Form. The project was geared to get students into the iterative design process. We wanted students to learn by making prototypes and then to go through the process of refinement.

Students started the process by sketching and doodling on the provided tracing paper overlaid on the grid.  As they sketched, they were periodically prompted to go through the process of uploading their process sketches into the Panoform tool.  In doing so, they noticed the cause-and-effect relationship between what is projected on the grid and how these forms are translated into the wrapped spherical VR environment.

For a more formal approach to this exercise, teachers might consider constructing scenes with simple two-dimensional and then three-dimensional shape representation. The three-dimensional shapes (for more advanced designers) require them to consider elements embedded in the grid such as a horizon line and vanishing points.

Finally, after working with basic shapes, students could then use them to construct fantasy environments and creatures of either their own imagination or from books they had read [7]. In one instance of the exercise, students looked at recreating scenes from Dr. Seuss books in VR.

Photo Credit: Derek Ham “[laying out text in unwrapped spherical panoramic image]

Exercise 2

The second exercise called Spatial Typography introduced students to graphic design principles through the creation of VR spatial compositions. This exercise prompts students to design a statement or passage to be read in VR space. Graphic Design has a strong precedent for using typography to frame space and amplify messages, as seen in the work by designers Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.

Students start the exercise by picking out their own passage to work within VR space. For instance, consider the following passage by Victor Hugo,

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Students were asked to write down and reflect on the passage. They then began to underline key words in the passage that stood out. Using the previous example, we might articulate the words: nothing, powerful, idea, and time. Identifying keywords is important for establishing a hierarchy in their designed composition.

Students were prompted to consider a few basic principles in deciding how to layout their text. First, they were asked to consider the use of contrast in setting up the typeface for their words. The broadest way to think about this is to select (or design) one serif and sans serif style font. That is to say; we encouraged students to use letterforms (fonts) that are decorative with letters forms that have little to no decorative components. As an example, “Arial” fonts are considered a Sans-serif font while “Curlz” would be considered a Serif style font.  As the students played with these lettering techniques, they used various approaches to create their own design rules to establish a hierarchy between the words in their composition. These design rules helped them determine the appropriate scale, orientation, colors, and spatial position.


There is a term called “ilinx” used to describe a category of play that involves temporary moments of disrupted perception [8]. Often it is used to describe dizziness, or being limbo. Children spin themselves like tops, and adults ride breathtaking roller coasters; all of which are forms of ilinx. VR also offers a type of ilinx. When an individual places a VR headset over their eyes, he/she is temporarily disrupting their perception for the enjoyment of experiencing this virtual space. Ilinx is fully active while the user reconciles the experience of being physically and virtually present; they inhabit two worlds.

As you might imagine, ilinx is also found in the construction of spherical panoramic projections! The visual dexterity it takes in looking at the constructed drawing while imagining its spatial location in VR is enough to make any designer dizzy. This, of course, is all part of the fun and an integral part of the learning process.



  • [1] Singer, I. (2011). Modes of creativity. MIT Press; Cambridge; MA.
  • [2] Ham, D. (2015). Playful Calculation. In N. Lemon (Ed.), Revolutionizing Arts Education in K-12 Classrooms through Technological Integration (pp. 125-144).
  • [3] Ham, D. (2016). “How Designers Play: The Ludic Modalities of the Creative Process.” Design Issues, vol 32, no. 4, pp. 16-28.
  • [4] Huizinga, J. (1950). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.
  • [5] Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books; New York, NY.
  • [6] Stiny, G. (2006). Shape: Talking about seeing and doing. MIT Press; Cambridge, MA.
  • [7] Paley, G. V. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • [8] Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play, and games. New York, NY: The Free Press of Glencoe.
Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Ages 9-12, Coding & STEAM, Creativity, For Parents and Teachers, Play, Teens

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