Digital Learning Spaces

Field of 3D Dreams

Manufacturers have a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ belief about <br />educational content for 3D projectors. With the cost of these devices coming down and immersive education on the rise, they may be right.

When the film Avatar hit theaters late last year, shattering box office records and racking up Academy Award nominations, it changed moviegoers’ perceptions of the possibilities of 3D.

Now, the technology that has been captivating audiences on movie screens is making its debut in a smaller venue—the classroom. And according to makers of a new generation of 3D-ready projectors, 3D is poised to do for education what it has done for entertainment.

“We’re taking what’s been in movie theaters for five years and bringing it to the lecture hall,” says Dave Duncan, education business development manager for Texas Instruments, whose patented Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology is behind this next wave of projectors.

In the past year, projector manufacturers from Acer to Vivetek have begun rolling out 3D models. (For a breakdown of 3D-projector manufacturers, models, and specs from our sister publication T.H.E. Journal, visit thejournal.com/ct3dchart.) Yet, producers of educational 3D content have not been nearly so bullish. But that’s only a matter of time, insiders say.

“A lot of this has been notional up to this point in time,” Duncan acknowledges about educational content for 3D projectors. But he’s convinced the technology—which creates the illusion of depth by presenting each eye with a slightly different image—is destined to become a standard teaching tool. He points to 3D’s capacity to enhance visualization in such subjects as anatomy, physiology, biology, and physics. “As we start talking to educators,” he says, “it’s really about this immersive world they’re going to be teaching in—3D is a means to create this immersive experience.”

3D Expectations

Some schools are already immersed in creating three-dimensional learning experiences, even without the DLP technology built into their projectors.

Since 2006, Darton College, a two-year institution in Albany, GA, has used a 3D-projection system created by its tech staff to teach students in its allied health department. (Darton won a 2006 Campus Technology Innovators award for its use of 3D technology in the classroom; see campustechnology.com/articles/2006/07/2006-campus-technology-innovators-3D.aspx.) With lessons including 3D images of a beating human heart, 3D has not only sparked students’ interest and engaged them in learning, it’s also been a draw in attracting and retaining students, says Darryn Ostrander, Darton’s director of instructional technology and distance learning. “I think eventually students are going to expect it.”

“Our big key is retention,” notes Andrew Lenard, who is among Darton’s 10 full-time tech staff members. “We get a lot of transfer students, and the more we can do to engage them the better. [3D] does engage and it does help.”

The school currently has one 3D setup, which can be rolled around to different classrooms, and it’s in near-constant demand, Lenard says.

More for Less?

While Darton’s tech staff has been able to create 3D images using two synced projectors, new one-projector models make 3D simpler and less expensive.

Making the switch to 3D requires active-shutter glasses (see “How 3D Projectors Work,” at right) and a computer with a high-end graphics card, as well content designed for 3D. While the accessories add to the cost of a 3D-projection system, for most models there is no price premium for 3D capability—with some, such as a 2,300-lumen projector from ViewSonic, available for around $500.

How 3D Projectors Work

3D projectors employ DLP technology, which uses microscopic digital mirrors to create two images on the screen at once by dividing the projector’s 120 Hz output between the right and left eyes. The 3D illusion for viewers occurs when special active-shutter glasses receive data from the projector and open and close a filter in front of each eye in sync with the images.

The active-shutter system works well in small classroom venues. Institutions looking to install 3D in large auditoriums and lecture halls, however, may opt for a 3D-projector system that employs the passive polarized setup found in movie theaters. In these passive systems, the open-close mechanism is in front of the projector lens, which changes the polarization of the light received by the viewer wearing polarized glasses.

Passive polarized technology requires a more expensive silver screen to properly reflect light back to the audience (an active-shutter system needs only a standard classroom screen). On the other hand, at $2 to $3 apiece, the polarized glasses used in the passive system are less expensive than active-shutter glasses. TI and other projector companies are working with glasses manufacturers with the goal of getting the price of active-shutter glasses below $50. Active-shutter glasses also require sterilization after each use; polarized glasses can be reused or sent back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and repackaged or to be recycled. 

3D projectors also function as standard 2D projectors, which means schools can safely replace their older projectors with 3D models and continue to use 2D content.

Furthermore, says Juan Alvarez, US education director at 3D-projector manufacturer BenQ, 3D technology will allow schools to minimize costs while maximizing student experience. Alvarez offers as an example vocational-training 3D models that can provide students an experience that simulates equipment that may be too expensive for a school to purchase.

As for what schools should look for in a 3D projector, the considerations are largely the same as when purchasing a standard 2D projector. Among the features that some manufacturers are highlighting for the education market are: brightness (for visibility in classrooms that aren’t pitch-dark), ease of switching between 2D and 3D content, built-in audio, easy portability and setup, multiple data ports, and additional safety features.

Content Still Lags

While the projector technology is in place for widespread 3D adoption and prices for 3D accessories (such as glasses) are falling, the amount of educational 3D content is still limited. “It’s lagging, but it’s on its way,” TI’s Duncan says, adding that he expects to see a wave of content become available later this year.

One 3D-content provider that is gearing up is Eon Reality, which creates 3D and virtual reality authoring software for aerospace, entertainment, and medicine, among other industries. The company has a library of about 8,000 3D learning objects that are compatible with DLP projectors, and is growing its education-oriented inventory. “There’s a huge drive,” says Marly Bergerud, vice president of education development for the company. “More and more content is being built for education.”

Schools may not have to wait on commercial content providers. For the past four years, El Paso Community College (TX) students and faculty have been using Eon Reality authoring tools to create computer-based 3D interactive content across a variety of subject areas, including geology, astronomy, and architecture. The availability of new and affordable 3D-ready projectors, say industry experts, increases the opportunity for more schools to create their own immersive content.

Ultimately, say makers of 3D-ready projectors, classroom projection systems are expected to follow the trajectory of Hollywood after theaters began installing new 3D systems: The technology will be put in place first, and the content will follow once there is a demand for it.

“There were 3D systems in the theaters before there was content. We see what’s happening at the box office; the same thing’s going to happen in [the education] space,” Duncan says. “We just need to worry about filling out the rest of the infrastructure.”

About the Author

Sara Stroud is a freelance writer based in Oakland, CA.

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