There are plenty of folks in the education technology field who are excited about virtual reality as the next great educational tool. One team in England, however, is reaching into education’s past to bring a lost technology—the ars memoriae or Art of Memory—back.
Before the mass production of written text was a thing the art of memory was used by orators, actors and others to memorize and contextualize vast amounts of information. The masters of the form took this far past rote memorization and party tricks. One sophisticated technique involving the creation of personal
“memory palaces” from which facts and speeches could be summoned up at will.
The examples of this in antiquity revolve around Roman senators memorizing the features of the Forum, and then mentally imprinting the contents of their speeches on the virtual versions of the space. Actors would do the same with the theaters they worked.
Fans of the BBC series Sherlock may also be familiar with the concept, as the modern-day version of the great detective played by Benedict Cumberbatch has his own “mind palace.”
As someone who relates to information spatially the idea that one can develop this trait into a workable framework for learning is exciting. Which is exactly what Dr. Aaron Ralby, the CEO of a company called Linguisticator, is doing with the Macunx project.
Earlier this month he launched a Kickstarter to fund the Macunx VR project. The idea: to build a VR sandbox that could be used to create memory palaces that could, in turn, be used to teach multiple subjects. I spoke with Ralby at length about his plan, which has its roots in his background as a linguist and medieval scholar. He has since applied the techniques he researched about the art of memory to educational projects with young students, some with learning disabilities, and says that they’ve helped them tackle subjects that had been difficult for them before.
The core system will be a toolset that lets anyone build their own memory palace on top of a Unity base. The development phases beyond that aim to build modules for specific subjects (e.g. languages, anatomy, history) and an instructor mode that would allow teachers to develop their own lessons and upload them into a global platform. As we’ve seen from other frontiers in technology the really interesting stuff starts to happen once you add user generated content into the mix.
The project is well on its way, having cleared its financial goal by almost double, and is going to be developed with the help of Westminster University. This means that the “free build” mode is guaranteed. As the project enters its final week the team is hoping to hit a stretch goal of £10,000— they’re a little over the halfway mark for that—and get subject modules built for the program.
While I’m excited about the prospect of tackling a language—maybe Japanese, which I’ve always wanted to learn—with the aid of spatial learning techniques my own selfish interests lay in the existence of the platform as a tool for organization and creation. As a fan of mind mapping techniques and data visualization I view a VR memory palace as the ultimate tool for teasing insight out of information.
Just another reason to be excited about our VR/AR future.