When Zhong Qiu first tried a virtual reality game in early 2016, she was impressed and inspired by the technology: "It can solve a lot of problems if it could be applied to a simulation of laboratory class!"
At that time, Zhong was a chemistry teacher at Beijing Royal School. During her five-year teaching career, she has found it difficult to teach the preview class before turning students loose into the laboratory.
"It's hard to make students remember all the details of the experiment if they receive the information passively." says Zhong. "But I felt that VR can let students explore the subject proactively on their own."
Now Zhong works for Phantom Whale, a startup company focusing on VR education.
"After my VR experience, I learned by chance that the company was hiring, and decided to give it a try," says Zhong. She designs the content for a chemistry class that will be taught in the VR education application that the company is developing.
In the virtual laboratory environment created in the app, students could preview a particular experiment, learning all the proper procedures before doing them in a real lab. They could also conduct dangerous experiments - ones that are often taught but never practiced in traditional teaching.
"We are planning to develop VR courses for all subjects in K-12 (from kindergarten to 12th grade) education," says Cai Nizhe, who co-founded the company in early 2016 with three friends.
The company now has a team of around 30 employees, and plans to hire more young teachers like Zhong, who have not only a strong background in teaching but also a sense of the new technology.
Cai used to work for UNICEF when she was studying in New York University, and she later worked for the Ministry of Health on designing policies that promote children's health and education equality in the country.
"VR can provide education resources to areas that are lack of good teachers and facilities at a lower cost," says Cai.
"It can also broaden the horizons of students in rural areas by bringing them to other places in the world virtually."
Besides designing VR courses for K-12 education, the company has applied VR technology in vocational education through a partnership with Guilin University of Electronic Technology on navigation and logistics.
"In the past, a complete navigating simulator costs millions, but now a VR device set designed for the same purpose costs only tens of thousands," adds Cai.
Phantom Whale is not the only company eyeing the VR education market, which Goldman Sachs predicts will have 15 million users in 2025. A market that size would generate $700 million in revenue just from educational software.
In the past year, more than a dozen companies have announced their initiatives in the field in China, including the Nasdaq-listed New Oriental Education & Technology Group, which launched its VR English class on the online video platform of LeTV in August.
Alvin Wang Graylin is the China regional president of Vive, the VR operation of the Taiwan-based smartphone company HTC. In an interview with the People's Daily website in December, he said that although entertainment content is still what fuels the rapid growth of the VR industry now, in the long term, education will become the major growth driver.
"Parents won't spend some 6,000 yuan ($880) on a VR headset for their children to play video games, but if you tell them that through VR, their children could attend classes given by the best teachers in the best schools and universities in the world - they will probably buy it," said Graylin.