HoloLAB Champions teaches about chemistry with a VR game show

A chemistry lab might mean certain doom in Schell Games’ spy-themed virtual reality game I Expect You to Die — but it’s a learning opportunity in the studio’s newest title, HoloLAB Champions. The educational VR game is geared toward high school students, and it’s out today on the PC marketplace Steam for the HTC Vive.

HoloLAB Champions will debut will two episodes, each clocking in at 30 minutes or so. It presents players with a gauntlet of science experiment challenges, leading up to a grand finale. One student can play while their classmates watch on the screen and participate. A leaderboard also adds in a competitive element.

“High schools have the greatest need for improved chemistry education. Struggling with chemistry is one of key barriers keeping students away from careers in science and medicine,” said Schell Games’ CEO Jesse Schell in an email to GamesBeat. “Real-world chemistry labs can be expensive, dangerous, and hard to manage. By creating a simulation that gets students comfortable with lab work, it makes real world lab work more efficient and effective.”

HoloLAB’s environment doesn’t look like the typical sterile lab with its white coats and clipboards — the studio opted for a game show setting, hosted by a robot named Earl. Schell says that he and his team chose this format for its flexibility. Players already know to expect challenges and competitions on those types of TV programs, plus the format provided a quick an easy way to “celebrate each success.” Also, if the developer had decided to go with a more narrative approach, they’d have to write an entire story around each challenge.

This isn’t Schell Games’ first foray into educational games. In 2016, it released Happy Atoms, which combines physical models of atoms that can be scanned by a phone or tablet for more information. That project received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, as did HoloLAB.

A number of educational games have sprung up in this latest iteration of virtual reality. Other studios are also tackling the classroom, like MEL Science’s chemistry lessons in the U.K., while others meet a need for training via simulation for pediatric surgeons and factory workers.

“One of our biggest learnings on Happy Atoms was the importance of a variety of subject matter experts,” said Schell. “Teachers know exactly what they want in the classroom, but different teachers favor different things. College professors know what they wish students would learn in high school. Students know what is boring and confusing. Working with all of them, and finding an experience that gets all of them excited in different ways was key to the design of both Happy Atoms and HoloLAB Champions.”

One thing the team couldn’t learn from Happy Atoms was how to make a VR space comfortable. Unlike other virtual reality games that have to worry about locomotion, Schell Games’ main challenge was making a lab that felt right to its players.

“Comfort is very tricky. In a real world lab, every time you lean down to take a measurement from a graduated cylinder, you lean on the countertop. In VR, there is nothing to lean on, and so every measurement requires a squat thrust!” said Schell. “At least, that is the case if you simply mimic reality. We found we needed a modified lab space with a higher counter section for better ease of measurement. It’s these little details that build the bridge between VR and reality.”

HoloLAB retails at $10 for anyone who’s interested in learning some chemistry, but Schell says that they’re giving out free copies to educators and schools who would like to give it a shot in the classroom. The developer also has plans to release more episodes, though it will take its cue from community feedback on what subjects to tackle next. The first two, Chemiluminescence and Identify Unknowns, are respectively about mixing and creating chemical solutions and identifying them.

Chemistry is just the start, as well. Schell says that he thinks VR can be an excellent tool for education.

“Any skill or experience that benefits from full-body immersion can be made stronger and less expensive with VR,” said Schell. “Being able to reach out with your hands and manipulate virtual objects has the ability to make study of math, science, engineering, history, and many more easier and more intuitive.”