A/V Technology | Features

3D, or Not to Be?

3D technology is here and showing good results in some classrooms. The challenge lies in finding sufficient content to make the investment worthwhile.

It may be too soon for students to be showing up for class with popcorn and gummy bears, but technology similar to that behind the 3D blockbuster movie Avatar is slowly finding its way into college classrooms. 3D classroom projectors are taking students on fantastic voyages inside the human body, to the ruins of ancient Greece--even to faraway galaxies.

A watershed moment in 3D-projector technology came in 2009, when Texas Instruments (TI) released a firmware upgrade that enabled newer DLP (Digital Light Processing) projectors to accommodate 3D. Since then, the cost of 3D projectors has dropped to where some manufacturers, such as BenQ, offer a 3D-ready projector for as little as $599.

Even so, colleges and universities have been slower to jump on the 3D projector bandwagon than K-12 schools, says Chris Chinnock, founder and president of consulting firm Insight Media. This is probably due to the fact that more 3D content is currently available for the K-12 market. Chinnock expects the rate of adoption in higher ed to pick up as more college content is created and more studies demonstrate its value.

So far, much of the research into 3D learning has been sponsored by the manufacturers themselves, including a six-month study conducted in Europe in 2011 that compared the performance of students in classes using 2D and 3D imagery. Underwritten by TI, the "Learning in Future Education 1" study found the test scores of students in the 3D classes improved by 17 percent over their pre-course test scores, compared with an 8 percent improvement among students in the 2D classes.

Until independent studies can evaluate the impact of 3D content in education, however, it would be premature to rely on any statistical learning claims for the technology. Even then, it seems likely that any gains will be highly dependent on the quality of the content itself. That certainly seems to be the message from faculty who have used 3D content in their classrooms.

Faculty Experiences
At the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa, lecturer Darren Hoffmann has been using 3D projectors for two years to teach anatomy to groups of eight to 20 students. "The product itself is fascinating," says Hoffman, who also serves as a consultant for Cyber-Anatomy, the creator of the 3D cadaver software. "There are things I can teach faster with a 3D visualization that I can't do with flat PowerPoint slides."

Columbus State Community College (OH) developed its own 3D content for a distance-learning course on mythology. Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, who is an instructor at the college, and her husband, Timothy Gregory, a professor at Ohio State University, shot video and still photos last summer with Fuji 3D cameras. They then shared the images remotely with the college through Dropbox.com.

"The reaction was interesting--it was split," says Jason LaMar, a multimedia web developer at the college. "I think it mirrors society's general reaction to 3D stuff. Some people love it. For some people, it gives them a headache."

Those who loved it, though, were enthralled, he adds. "It's one thing to see a flat photo of the Parthenon in Greece, but it's an entirely different experience in 3D. You feel as if you could walk between the columns."

Meanwhile, an effort at Purdue University (IN) to model Earth's galactic neighbors in 3D fell short of expectations, according to Laura Cayón, a research associate professor in the physics department. The school installed a stereoscopic 3D system in an astronomy classroom capable of seating about 60 students. Unfortunately, the 3D experience didn't enhance students' appreciation of astronomical scales any better than viewing flat-panel representations did.

"Distances are so huge that it's hard to visualize 3D in the enormous empty spaces between galaxies," notes Cayón. "We came to the conclusion that a better option--at least for our project--was to have individual screens rather than [one large one]. Students become more immersed because it's their own screen--it's not so far away."

Darton College (GA) also experienced growing pains with its 3D software. The school obtained 3D anatomy models that were then animated by Andrew Lenard, a web designer at the college who helped build the 3D system.

The heart model looked great, except for one problem, recalls Darryn Ostrander, who was then director of instructional technology and distance learning: "The first thing a doctor said was, 'That person's going to die--he's got arrhythmia. The heart's not beating properly.'" Lenard, who's not a doctor, had incorrectly animated how the heart beats. Nevertheless the demonstration impressed physicians, who told Ostrander that it was better than dissection.

Sizing Up 3D Glasses
A major consideration with 3D projection is the choice of stereoscopic glasses required to create the 3D effects. Active-shutter glasses can view an image projected on any flat surface, while passive glasses require a silver screen as well as either dual projectors or a polarizing filter to create the 3D effects.

While passive glasses cost only a few dollars each, the active-shutter versions can cost upward of $100 each. Vendors offer volume discounts, however, which can reduce the cost to about $50 a pair.

3D glasses also have a positive side effect: keeping students focused on the 3D content rather than fiddling with their smartphones or tablets, says Jaime Beringer, customer marketing manager for Texas Instruments' DLP. "Glasses almost become like little radar-focused tools."

On the flip side, Darren Hoffmann, a lecturer in the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa, complains that they prevent eye contact with the instructor.

"I can't see people's lightbulbs going off," he says. "If I could remove the glasses and still have the engaging visuals, I think I'd probably be more satisfied as an instructor."

One other irritant: Distributing and collecting glasses can be a pain, especially for larger classes.

The holy grail of 3D projector technology--a glasses-free version--is still several years from being ready for prime time. The problem is that glasses-free 3D requires at least eight viewing zones. To achieve this either greatly reduces resolution or requires far more computing power, which boosts the cost.

"At Buffalo State College (NY), I'm hoping in the next two years that the holy grail is developed," says Jim Mayrose, an associate professor at the college. "If not, we will be going with the DLP 3D projectors with stereo glasses."

Lack of 3D Content
Without doubt, the biggest barrier to wider adoption of 3D projectors in the classroom is the dearth of quality instructional content. "There are a lot of 3D projectors in place, but we are waiting for the content and whole 3D ecosystem to catch up," says Michael Abramson, vice president of research for Pacific Media Associates, which covers the projector market.

It's a viewpoint shared by Insight Media's Chinnock. "In order for this to really move forward, you have to have the hardware/software solution," he notes. "The hardware is certainly there. The software, partly being the curriculum, that's getting there."

For content companies playing in the 3D space, though, it's a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Why would a university buy a 3D projection system for just one or two software titles? Conversely, why would a company develop a host of expensive titles to serve what is, after all, a relatively small market right now?

"For us, it would be great if there were 30 companies like ours," says Rich Lineback, president of Cyber-Anatomy. In addition to Cyber-Science software for high schools and junior colleges, Cyber-Anatomy offers a more sophisticated 3D package for medical schools.

Founded by Karim Abdel-Malek, a professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at the University of Iowa, the company discovered its first big market in the Middle East, where the Islamic requirement that a body be buried soon after death has led to a shortage of cadavers to train doctors. "Also, they don't have enough anatomy instructors," adds Lineback.

An interesting newcomer to the 3D content scene is ViziTech USA, founded two years ago in Atlanta by retired Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver. While in the military, Rodeheaver was tasked with finding a better way to teach new soldiers. He soon realized that today's youth, whom he dubbed "screenagers," are visual learners.

"I think it's absolutely the wave of the future," he says of 3D. "I think that the more virtual, the more visual, and the more experienced-based you can make it, the better off we're going to be."

ViziTech USA uses 3D AVRovers as the platform for proprietary 3D content sold to institutions like Moultrie Technical College (GA) and Savannah Technical College (GA). Moultrie bought three units in early 2011 for its healthcare programs, while Savannah recently signed a deal to use ViziTech USA 3D for its machine shop, aviation mechanics, and automotive-technician programs, says Rodeheaver.

His company invented "gesture manipulation," which enables a student to move 3D objects, such as machinery, by hand without having to use a mouse. ViziTech USA is currently working on a content portal to provide certified, curriculum-specific 3D imagery that can be downloaded by educational institutions.

A final hurdle to broader implementation of 3D projectors in higher education is one with which educators are all too familiar: budget issues. In these difficult economic times, it's tough to justify spending money on perceived frills. "That's a real issue," says Lineback. While 3D-ready projectors are not significantly more expensive than traditional projectors, many schools are likely to phase them in only gradually, as part of their normal equipment-replacement cycle. As it is, additional money is required for auxiliary 3D equipment, including screens and glasses.

One way around that, says Hoffmann, is to find money in a school's outreach or recruitment budget. He tosses the Cyber-Anatomy box in the back of his car and takes it around to high schools to promote Iowa's medical school. But it can also be used to dazzle alumni and other potential donors.

"Because it is so visually interesting, you get that automatic buy-in from anybody who just wants to see what it looks like," Hoffmann says.

3D Equipment Options
Schools have a variety of options for setting up a classroom 3D-projection system, with a broad range of prices.

"In terms of full classroom 3D with a projector, DLP is the solution for today," says Chris Chinnock, founder and president of consulting firm Insight Media, of the Digital Light Processing projectors powered by technology from Texas Instruments (TI). "However, Epson has just announced a number of new 3D projectors based on their LCD technology."

A third technology is LCOS, which stands for liquid crystal on silicon. It is reflective like DLP but uses a liquid crystal like LCD.

According to Jaime Beringer, customer marketing manager for TI's DLP, a basic DLP 3D projection system can now be put together for as little as $1,500 to $2,000, while Chinnock estimates it would cost about $5,000 to equip a classroom for 3D.

Some of the same companies peddling 3D content also offer turnkey hardware solutions as part of an effort to jump-start the industry. For example, Cyber-Anatomy provided the Carver Medical College at the University of Iowa with a turnkey system that includes a 3D projector, 3D-capable computer, and 3D glasses. The 35-pound equipment package sets up on a table to project 3D images on any surface. According to Rich Lineback, president of Cyber-Anatomy, a hardware package typically adds up to about $10,000.

A similar system is in place at Columbus State Community College (OH), except the college's technical crew assembled the components itself. That system, which cost about $5,000, includes a Sharp 3D DLP projector, a Dell laptop with an Nvidia Quadro graphics card, and 40 pairs of XpanD active-shutter 3D glasses, says Jason LaMar, a multimedia web developer at the college.

Also offering a turnkey 3D solution is AVRover. Its 3D projector package includes the projector, computer, and glasses on a rolling cart for under $10,000, says Doug Smith, AVRover's president. "We found that there were a lot of people trying to put carts together," Smith says. "They'd have 3D glasses and everything, but it was difficult to get it to work."

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