In 1953, the House of Wax, a horror film starring Vincent Price, opened at New York's Paramount Theater, the first-ever colour film in 3D. For the next 60 years, 3D movies needed audiences to wear special glasses, a restriction that killed the nascent 3D TV industry.
At a Starbucks cafe in Dallas two weeks ago, I sat in front of what looked like a plain vanilla laptop and experienced augmented reality firsthand. My right hand used a pen-like device to examine the underside of a human heart in 3D, in vivid color. I wasn't wearing any specialised glasses.
I have viewed a picture of the human heart numerous times and still can't get all the terms correct. I knew about the aorta, the body's largest artery, which carries blood from the heart to the circulatory system. I knew about coronary veins (depicted in blue) that take oxygen-poor ("deoxygenated") blood "used" by muscles of the heart to return it to the heart.
But to view this in 3D was thrilling.
With the click of the pen, I brought the heart out of the laptop in the space between the screen and me. Turning the pen, I could rotate the heart to see its undersides. I put the heart back into the laptop screen and sliced open the left atrium using the pen as a surgeon's knife, uncovering a world underneath.
Welcome to the world of 3D augmented reality, now being introduced to high schools around the US. It is a hit with school principals who have never seen anything like it. The entire anatomy of the human body has been modeled in fascinating detail, so students can examine, experiment, and learn to their heart's content, no pun intended.
The set of anatomy lessons constitutes just one topic area. Sixty other topics — from high school biology or chemistry to even shop classes, such as automotive repair and plumbing — were part of the extensive content menu on that laptop.
The instructions, exercises, and the feel of the pen are all so realistic that many states have approved granting career and technology credits to students who complete AR courses. A welder never needs to have worked on an actual blow torch. Intense instruction in the system's welding course using the pen is all one requires to get state-certified.
The classic glass-half-empty-half-full story is in play here. While the world continues to lament two lost years as learners were stuck at home during the pandemic, attempting to complete lessons online and asynchronously by watching videos, Silicon Valley was busy innovating. If students must learn from their computers, why not make the whole experience more engaging?
Companies like ZSpace, Echopixel, and uSens have exploited two crucial technologies already available. The first, holography, has been around for years. It allows visualisations that do not need glasses or any eyewear. Images appear in mid-air and are viewable naturally with the naked eye.
The second technology, simulation, has been used for over 70 years. Pilots train on expensive cockpit simulators that are so realistic that they have become indispensable in the aviation industry. The avionics are identical to that used on an aircraft.
A pull of the yoke sends signals to hydraulic actuators that tilt the entire cockpit up at an angle, giving the pilot the feel that the plane is taking off. Doctors routinely train on simulators before proceeding to the operating room to perform robotic surgery.
AR for education is the integration of three technologies — 3D, holography, and simulation. The laptop I used was a traditional machine with some added bells and whistles. The motherboard was powered with Nvidia chips to enhance screen graphics.
A side device that connects to the left-hand side of the laptop into two USB ports provides the holography effects. Other cameras, for teachers to project 3D images onto their classroom screen, and the expensive stylus pen complete the ensemble.
As with all technology, the hardware is just one dimension of the solution. The world-class software and content work in concert to make the experience so unbelievably real. Imagine dissecting a frog and examining its intricate details or observing the valence electrons in the outermost orbit when sulfur reacts with nitrogen. This is addictive.
There are so many other benefits to AR in classrooms. Smaller rural schools that can never afford to build or maintain a lab can procure a few computers, each retailing for about $4,000, and offer advanced classes hitherto unimaginable. Of course, there's a fee to license the software, but it is still far less expensive than building a brick-and-mortar laboratory.
Students, forever distracted by their mobile devices, now have a chance to enjoy school and satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Also, think of all the animals that need to be procured to be dissected in labs; or lab supplies that run into thousands of dollars. These expenses will drop to zero as animal rights activists register a significant victory.
It was Bill Gates who popularised the idea that technology is a great leveler. AR now has the potential to bring hands-on, project-based learning to the world's schools, even those in the poorest regions — at a reasonable cost. If any good news came out of Covid, AR for education is clearly one.