World of Woodcraft

***previously published on Popular Woodworking’s Blog***

I foresee a real paradigm shift in the craft hobbies coming in the very near future that could dramatically swell the ranks of the clan we call woodworkers, and possibly preserve the knowledge we lose with every generation that passes. It’s something I’ve been really excited about for the past few years as I’ve watched this technology grow past the embryo stage – especially when you consider the possibilities for education.

This may come as a surprise – it was a shock to my past technology students – but I am not a gamer.

But I do stay abreast of the technology because gaming is its bleeding edge, and gaming companies are the first to capitalize on the pent-up demand the public has for more interactive games and worlds. Especially in these massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMOrpg’s) – games that let you travel through vast lands interacting with other peoples avatars in settings ranging from prehistoric man to space travel. They raid, steal, build, craft, romance, power up, earn achievements and conquer.

Imagine this. You’re a kid playing an MMO but in order to join a clan going out on a hunt you have to make a spear. To unlock this achievement in the game you have to get the lumber and form the spear. Now a clever game developer could incorporate craft tidbits that a VR player would have to do in order to unlock the achievement. Hold the axe wrong, die and reset. Stand in the wrong place, die and reset. Swing at the wrong angle, die and reset. Lay the tree down in the wrong direction and be killed by the angry villagers, die and reset. In the course of a few minutes, at least the kid can get the idea of what’s involved in cutting a tree down.

The kid must then drag that tree to the woodshop. Hanging on the walls are tools. Which to choose? How to work them? And how about using a lathe? Did you grab the right gouge or skew? Are you holding it properly and presenting it at the right angle? Need to blacksmith a blade? Do you hit it when it’s orange or yellow? All this can happen virtually by moving your body and interacting with inanimate things that look real.

Now to me this all sounds stupid because I’m not a gamer. But it seems many gamers enjoy these power-up achievements. Design and furnishing guild halls, castles, hideouts and homes. It’s a part of the gaming universe.

But it’s what comes next that has me a bit giddy for the possibilities craft and education.

Imagine being able to step into the mind of Follansbee, Old Street Tool, Klausz, or Schwarz (well, maybe not his mind). This would not be a third-person DVD, this would not be s seocnd-person class, but a real virtual reality (VR) person stepping into the shoes masters, moving your hands the way they do, grasping the tools the way they do, seeing the work the way they do and not being able to progress through the presentation until your hands, fingers, arms all mimic theirs. It would be muscle memory education at the highest technological levels. This opens up a whole new realm of learning efficiency, societal information/skill retention, and confidence inspiration.

How many of us can picture our grandkids (or future grandkids) wanting to cut a dovetail but instead of picking up a book, reading a magazine or watching a DVD to learn the skill they simply go to the net and Google “best dovetailer” and download a VR file that shows them the techniques of Klausz, or Cosman? They can learn through mimicry and build confidence via practice runs before trying the real thing. Files could grade them on technique and offer hints such: “Twist your bottom wrist to hold the board down while chopping”; “shift your body to straighten that cut ‘like this’”; “drag the brush closer to 90° to reduce brush lines.” How about project education where you download Follansbee drawboring a leg, Strazza doing inlay or Flexner explaining finishing? You could do a couple practice runs before attacking the project.

VR just might be the paradigm shift we need in craft and it’s almost mainstream. What skill of yours do you think could be improved via VR? (and please don’t say knitting).

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