Arkansas is first to participate in Facebook virtual reality initiative

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 836 views 

Little Rock’s Central High School students on Thursday (Jan. 5) tested virtual reality equipment donated by Facebook.

Arkansas high schools will be the first in the nation to receive 500 Oculus Rift virtual reality systems as part of an initiative by Facebook.

Under the Arkansas & Facebook Techstart Partnership, schools will receive 500 kits that include headsets, 360-degree cameras, and computers. The program also will provide professional development for teachers and access to computer science events.

The total value of the initiative is about $1 million, said Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer. She and Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the initiative Thursday (Jan. 5) at Little Rock Central High School.

The company is rolling out its Techstart initiative in Arkansas and will expand to other states. Arkansas was chosen because of Hutchinson’s initiative requiring all Arkansas high schools to provide a computer coding class, Egan said. Two years after the initiative began, about 5,500 students are taking the course.

“There’s no question that the governor’s interest in bringing coding to the classroom and computer science is why we chose Arkansas first,” she told reporters.

With the donation, Arkansas students will be able to create content to teach others about their state, she said. She told students that virtual reality, where a headset and earplugs let users immerse themselves in computer-created environments, is the next generation of tech. She said she visited a Syrian refugee camp the first time she used the technology. During the announcement, Central High student Kameron May demonstrated the technology by standing atop a skyscraper, visiting another planet, traveling inside the human body, and coming face to face with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The Arkansas Department of Education and the private Arkansas Public School Resource Center will select the schools to receive the kits, with priority given to lower-income schools. The donation will provide systems to 250 high schools, educational cooperatives, and science and math education centers, with some larger schools receiving two systems. Hutchinson said the program initially requires no financial investment by the state, but the state could supplement it.

Hutchinson told Central High students that learning to code would ensure they have a good-paying job when they graduate. He said he visited Facebook’s headquarters and found it offered employees plentiful amenities, including chefs on every floor and a rooftop park where they can work. However, the countertops were made of plywood to remind employees that the work is not finished.

Hutchinson extended an invitation to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to visit Arkansas. Zuckerberg has said he will visit 30 states where he has not yet traveled in 2017.

“There’s not a more visible company than Facebook, not just nationally but globally,” Hutchinson told reporters, “and to have Facebook as a partner with Arkansas really sends a signal globally that we are a mover in the technology education field, so that’s great for our state just in terms of putting a centerpiece on what we are doing here.”