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Reinventing flat education

We live in a spatial world, but so far, education appears to be constrained to ‘flat’, 2D experiences, such as books and screens.

According to educationalist, Edgar Dale, we retain around 10% of what we read, compared with 90% of what we experience ourselves.

The promise of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has yet to break the conformity of ‘flat learning’, however, but, according to Dave Chavez, CTO of ZSpace, that’s all set to change with the development of what the company says is the world’s first AR/VR laptop.

“Our technology takes advantage of the spatial world, and our senses, and enables a means to interact in a much more natural way,” Chavez says.

According to Chavez, it’s a more engaging learning practise because it’s immersive, and allows the user to study in a way that engages all of their senses.

“We placed audio into the laptop and a haptic transducer into a stylus. So, for example, students can not only view and study a human heart in 3D, but also hear and feel it beating.”

According to a report from the American Optometric Association, “The educational benefits of presenting teaching materials in 3D are promising, generating a significant improvement in comprehension and retention over the more traditional non-3D style of presentation.”

The ZSpace system opens up possibilities that weren’t achievable before, says Chavez. “You can do things that aren’t so easy to do or not possible in real life. For example, zooming in and studying a 3D structure of DNA.”

The idea to place the ZSpace system in the classroom, however, was not the original drive for the company. Instead, the initial goal was to create a “comfortable” 3D display.

Previously, 3D systems used Cathode Raid Tubes (CRTs) and shutter glasses comprising active electronics. The CRT contained an electron ‘gun’ which modulated, accelerated and deflected the electron beam that emanated from it onto a phosphorescent screen. The electronics in the glasses had polarisers that opened and closed, cutting the light off completely in one eye and then the other. This allowed for different images to be delivered to each eye, creating a sense of 3D depth. LCDs later replaced CRTs, but it wasn’t generally accepted as a “comfortable” solution due to the flickering visuals, suggests Chavez.

“We asked ourselves, how could we create a really comfortable 3D display system using LCD? And one of the questions that sprung from that was ‘how will people use it?’ It seemed that other work was mostly aimed at high-end applications and focused in the scientific and medical industries. But as we started to create ZSpace, we saw there was a much broader application – schools,” he says.

Chavez believes that the traditional flat way of learning is only accepted because there’s no other option and the options that do exist are either uncomfortable, ask too much of the user, or are expensive.

“If, in the future, you didn’t have to wear glasses and screens were volumetric like the rest of the world, people would readily accept this as the norm.”

To create its ‘comfortable’ solution, Chavez says ZSpace “took a risk”, steering away from traditional ‘active’ – that is electronics within – glasses, and instead created a passive pair.

ZSpace then integrated all of the necessary components into a bespoke laptop for a lighter, more comfortable wearable experience, says Chavez.

“We didn’t want to build a super custom laptop that was going to cost a fortune,” continues Chavez. “We started with a basic laptop design and worked with AMD to pick a processor and GPU that was going to able to deliver this experience. Essentially, it’s a Windows 10, but just a little heavier.”

Polarisation

To create the perception of 3D, ZSpace used polarisation.

“Natural light is comprised mostly of randomly polarised light; a mixture of degrees of vertically and horizontally polarised light of varying magnitudes and angles. Vertically and horizontally polarised light are special cases, where the electromagnetic lines have been aligned,” explains Chavez. To visual it, imagine a ribbon (representing light) being waved up and down and then side to side.

“Circularly polarised light is another special case,” he adds, “where the phase relationship of the electromagnetic waves results in the direction of the electric field to vary in time.”

The ZSpace glasses are oppositely polarised – one left-circularly-polarised, the other right-circularly-polarised. To track the user’s eye position and orientation, IR cameras are built into the laptop. Using polarisation, the glasses transmit the correct display image and block the image intended for the opposite eye.

The tracking system allows the graphics engine to render correct projections in real time, based on the user’s viewing position.

On the laptop, there is an active layer of electronics in the display, explains Chavez. As the images ‘shoot’ from the GPU at 120fps, the display system alternates between left circular polarisation and right circular polarisation, with the intention to deliver them to the left eye, then the right, then the left etc. Thus, with binocular vision, simulating the way in which we view real life objects.

The cameras in the laptop track the markers on the glasses and stylus provided with the ZSpace system. The markers reflect IR from emitters which are placed close to the cameras. This allows the camera system to determine the position of the glasses and stylus.

Chavez explains that latency for the system needed to be low, so the tracking system had to be able to detect position within milliseconds. The IR helped the team to accomplish this as it filters out visible light, allowing the camera to focus on what it needs to. “The imagery was reduced to dots and then further reduced to a list of x and y coordinates. That’s not very much information at all, so it allowed for a very fast system,” says Chavez.

Future

With AR/VR dipping in and out of the limelight, Chavez did admit that initially, it concerned him it was “just a fad”. However, after developing ZSpace he says his worries have disappeared. “We have created something really special,” he says.

“Part of that,” he adds, “is because we have developed a hassle-free and less expensive solution with lots of benefit to the user. That’s why it’s not caught on before, we have been asking too much with little to give in return.”

As for the future, Chavez believes ZSpace has plenty of industry opportunity.

“I can see people shopping and communicating this way. We’re working with Google and the Chrome browser at the moment.”

Despite not being able to reveal specifics of this joint project, Chavez did hint at the notion of a 3D web browser. “We’re heading into a world where screens won’t be flat, where the web won’t be flat,” he says, “and we are going to be a big part of that.”

Although we are yet to see definitive studies detailing the benefits and results of long term use of VR/AR in education, most research concludes that engagement and user reactions has been positive.

So, we’ll just have to wait and see whether schools take note, or if like other virtual technology, it’s just a matter of time before it peters out and it’s time to hit the books again.

Author
Bethan Grylls

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