Successfully combining educational value with an entertaining, playful presentation, The Big Table is a VR laboratory that teaches many fundamental chemistry concepts, aimed at students aged 13 to 17. The app recently launched on Gear VR and Oculus Rift.
The journey begins in a space shuttle, docking dramatically with a high-tech space lab, giving the user a chance to familiarise themselves with the simple control system, which involves teleport locomotion and all object interactions performed with a single input. This caters to Gear VR’s limited input options and seems appropriate for this application. With the ‘untethered’ freedom of a Gear VR, the user can easily turn around on the spot, but for front-facing Rift tracking setups, you can also snap-turn with an analog stick. The whole experience can be played with a single Touch controller.
Once inside, students should find the lab visually stimulating without being too overcrowded or overwhelming; a friendly AI companion floats around, explaining the different pieces of equipment, while other AI robots trundle across the floor doing their own ‘research’. Each robot is named after a famous scientist, and can be picked up and placed in the ‘Analyzer’ for a very brief history lesson. You can place any objects in this device, which triggers the giant periodic table on the wall to animate and show the elements it contains.
The lab consists of four experimental stations: the ‘Zapper’ to measure conductivity, the ‘Smasher’ to demonstrate allotropy and malleability, the ‘Converter’ to switch through phases of solid, liquid, and gas, and the ‘Igniter’ for combustion. Each station has a selection of objects to place into the equipment, and you throw the lever to see what happens. In some cases you’ll create new objects through this process, which are then added to the menu. This prompts a voyage of discovery; most users will probably want to throw every object into every piece of equipment.
And satisfyingly, you’re free to do so. For example, there is a battery in the menu next to the ‘Zapper’, to show its conductivity. But there’s nothing to stop you from sticking the battery in the ‘Smasher’ instead, which makes a nice bang. Experimentation is encouraged, and the developers seem to have thought about most of the obvious combinations, but the one-handed, one-button controls means you can’t group a ton of objects together. The robots are quick to clear up any object you drop, which is a little frustrating, but it’s probably for the best. This isn’t Garry’s Mod (2004), after all.
Several enormous 3D icons float way above you, which activate more audio explanations and corresponding ‘holographic’ animations about atomic theory. These are generally well-made and succinct, and are presented at a scale that would be impossible to reproduce in a classroom. Behind the floating icons, the walls are draped with vertical banners, which display ‘achievements’ for completing certain tasks. Much like the object lists at each station, some of these are hidden or locked, and have to be discovered during a thorough exploration of the lab. In some cases, these also generate more objects. For example, only once you’ve activated the achievement “light a substance on fire without the burner” will you be given some chili peppers in the Converter menu, which can then be converted into pepper spray. Your achievements and unlocks save automatically, so you can continue from where you left off if you return to the lab. There is an option to reset everything, but the app might benefit from a multiple save feature, if the same headset was being shared with several students.
The Big Table‘s simplistic visuals are clearly designed for the Gear VR, and it’s not stacked with content, but there is more than enough value here, considering the low $3 price. There is at least an hour’s worth of things to see and do as a single user, and it potentially offers a huge value if used properly in an educational setting.