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How AR/VR Can Elevate Learning Experiences

Developed by Case Western Reserve University, HoloAnatomy software works in combination with Microsoft HoloLens AR headsets to provide first- and second-year medical students with 3D perspectives of the human body.
Developed by Case Western Reserve University, HoloAnatomy software works in combination with Microsoft HoloLens AR headsets to provide first- and second-year medical students with 3D perspectives of the human body. (Image credit: Case Western Reserve University)

Colleges and universities have been making use of augmented and virtual reality technologies for a while now. As the pandemic has forced institutions to reach more students remotely, AR and VR have the potential to contribute to a more engaging distance learning experience. Recently, AV Technology spoke with several leaders in the field to gain a better understanding of what this tech can do for higher ed.

Augmenting Anatomy

The Health Education Campus at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland officially opened its doors during the summer of 2019. Built in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, the facility gathers students from Case Western’s medical, nursing, and dental programs under one roof. It also houses a number of spaces that were specifically designed to deliver anatomy education via augmented reality. 

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Developed by what Case Western has dubbed the Interactive Commons—a group of anatomy faculty and software engineers—the university’s HoloAnatomy software in combination with Microsoft HoloLens AR headsets provides first- and second-year medical students with 3D perspectives of the human body, without the need for wet labs and cadavers. Miro Humer, associate vice president of client experience at Case Western, explained that his team is responsible for supporting the HoloLens devices as well as the technology that runs them. 

Humer said that during HoloAnatomy’s planning and design, there were some logistics to consider: how long would students need to wear these devices (and would they become too heavy to wear after a certain amount of time)? Would the devices cause headaches? And what about battery life? If a session was to last 45 minutes, and classes were scheduled back to back, would there be time to recharge the devices? “It drives how many devices you have to have on hand,” he said. “Our battery life is typically about two hours, but with age, that recedes.” He added that there was also significant discussion around how to apply the HoloLens to student testing: “When we have testing sessions and we’re using the HoloLens for the test, do we have enough devices? How do we proctor those tests? Some tests last an hour and a half, so the devices have to be fully charged and the batteries have to be in good condition to manage that.” And, if a device fails during the test, it’s necessary to have a backup on hand.

When classes went fully remote in the spring of 2020, HoloLens devices were shipped to HoloAnatomy students and classes were able to continue.

When classes went fully remote in the spring of 2020, HoloLens devices were shipped to HoloAnatomy students and classes were able to continue. (Image credit: Case Western Reserve University)

As of press time, only part of Case Western’s student body was back on campus, while the rest continued with remote learning. Humer relayed that when the university went fully remote in the spring of 2020, HoloLens devices were shipped to HoloAnatomy students and classes were able to continue. “Everybody saw how well this can work in a distributed world, where students can be anywhere and keep going with their education,” he said. During remote classes, students examining the same holographic image can also see avatars of each other, providing a level of interaction that Humer said is well beyond Zoom. “We’re going to continue our anatomy programs remotely. That would have been impossible in the old world, and that would have had significant financial impact to the university if we weren’t able to continue those classes.” 

Humer acknowledged that different people have different expectations of what AR and VR can deliver, and in order for an initiative like this to be successful, genuine collaboration between faculty and tech staff is a must. “There has to be a very strong partnership between the technology organization and the academic organization within the university to develop an effective solution—more so than, say, if you’re just deploying computers in a room,” he said. “It’s very closely aligned with the academic goals and students’ goals as well, [in terms of] what they can achieve in class. The technology organization has to be closely involved in the development of it.”

Professors Without Borders

In June of last year, Almo Professional A/V partnered with ARHT Media Inc., a holographic solutions developer based in Toronto.

Brian Rhatigan, director of business development at Almo, recounted that his colleague Sam Taylor, executive vice president and COO, was one of the driving forces behind the partnership. “Sam recognized this as a pioneering technology that he felt we wanted to be a part of, and that it could be a mutually beneficial relationship for both companies,” he said. “We’ve been working cohesively to raise awareness of ARHT Media, which is not necessarily a brand-new company, but new to our customer base. We’re getting the word out about the possibilities of the things you can do that, really, are outside of what the traditional pro AV integrator typically thinks of from a presentation and communications perspective.”

At the core of ARHT Media’s technology is the ARHT Engine, software that enables high-quality, low-latency AV streaming with end-to-end encryption. HoloPresence is a 3D display that doesn’t require viewers to wear 3D glasses, and which allows remote lecturers to appear in front of audiences as live holograms. Released in November 2020, HoloPod is a more portable version of HoloPresence (which does require an hour and a half to deploy). Designed for lecture halls, corporate training centers, and large corporate boardrooms, HoloPod is a plug-and-play cabinet on wheels that can be fully secured when not in use. Virtual Global Stage (VGS), the ARHT Media’s online, low-latency presentation platform, rounds out the company’s current lineup. 

ARHT Media’s Virtual Global Stage presentation platform allows remote lecturers to appear in front of audiences as live holograms.

ARHT Media’s Virtual Global Stage presentation platform allows remote lecturers to appear in front of audiences as live holograms. (Image credit: ARHT Media)

ARHT Media CEO Larry O’Reilly explained that in using these solutions, universities become truly borderless. “What it allows higher education institutions to do is bring in core curriculum instructors or guest lecturers from anywhere in the world and have them present live or pre-recorded, lifelike, life-size, and fully interactive,” he said.

Last September, global healthcare company Novartis enlisted ARHT Media for a sponsored online presentation at the European Respiratory Society (ERS). Addressing the topic “Asthma Trends and Digital Health Solves,” three peer academic faculty based in Australia, Greece, and Germany were able to appear together, life-size, on the same Virtual Global Stage and interact with each other.  

“They wanted their presentation to look better than a Zoom call, which is what everybody else was doing … and we brought them together so that they could do their presentations individually, but more importantly, then have a panel discussion,” O’Reilly said. “It looked like they were all together in the exact same room because there was no latency. It was way more engaging.” According to ARHT Media, the presentation received over 2,000 views, and the company has continued to work with Novartis on other events since.

More Than Just a Laptop

The platform developed by zSpace Inc., an interactive technology company headquartered in San Jose, CA, integrates AR/VR technology into a laptop. The system also includes lightweight eyeglasses (enabling users to see each other while interacting with the technology), as well as a stylus. The laptop displays are equipped with tracking; as users tilt their heads to look around objects, the software automatically updates so that the image is presented in the correct perspective in full high definition. Users hold the stylus like they would a pen, with built-in buttons for additional functionality.

zSpace also offers a learning content catalog developed both in-house and by third-party providers. 

Michael Carbenia, executive director of career technical education (CTE) at zSpace, actually started out as a customer. Having grown up in the AV industry, Carbenia eventually pursued a career in education; prior to joining zSpace, he was the director of CTE for St. Lucie Public Schools in St. Lucie County, FL.

zSpace Inc.’s AV/VR platform utilizes a laptop, lightweight glasses, and a stylus to create immersive experiences that elevates education.

zSpace Inc.’s AV/VR platform utilizes a laptop, lightweight glasses, and a stylus to create immersive experiences that elevates education. (Image credit: zSpace)

“The idea of AR and VR is that it allows somebody to experience something that they’ve never experienced before, or perhaps they’re scared to [experience],” Carbenia said. “It’s never going to replace actually working on a car, or actually welding. That’s not the intent, and I think that’s a misconception that people often think about. This is really about accelerating learning and getting someone to have the option to be exposed to something.”

Last fall, Renton Technical College in Renton, WA supplied students in the school’s automotive technology program with zSpace laptops pre-loaded with course curriculum to accommodate remote learning. According to Warren Takata, automotive technology instructor at the school, the technology actually improved student engagement. 

“Usually when you transition to remote learning, you worry about students completing their work,” Takata said in an announcement. “With zSpace, a lot of them went beyond the regular lessons. It’s really engaging content, and they dove in even further than their assignments called for, learning on their own about motors and transmissions.”

Takata believes that in order to maintain this level of engagement, schools need to be open to incorporating new technologies into their teaching methods. “We’ve taught automotive technology in the same way for decades,” he said. “Students gravitate toward learning with high-tech tools like zSpace. Programs that don’t adopt new technologies are going to be left behind.” 

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.