Making holograms in the classroom a reality

HoloStudy is looking to revolutionize education by bringing mixed reality lessons to the masses, using realistic, interactive holograms to teach subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics.

HoloStudy earth lesson on the Microsoft HoloLens
Credit: HoloStudy

“Pictures and videos simply do not do it justice; you have to experience it for yourself,” says Alexey Yakubov, CEO and founder of HoloGroup, the Russian-based company behind HoloStudy, a revolutionary educational project for the Microsoft HoloLens.

Yakubov believes the advanced holographic technology they’re working on has the potential to shift the entire paradigm of education, offering a truly visual and interactive learning experience to students all over the world.

Why mixed reality?

“Mixed reality literally allows for the real and digital worlds to be combined, and with holograms you can almost feel the science at your fingertips,” he explains. “This is absolutely a revolutionary way to transfer information and enable collaborative work. It makes the process of learning clearer, more interactive, and more interesting; therefore, more effective.”

Their mission, he says, is to bridge the gap between the increasing flow of information and the obsolescence of existing teaching methods using mixed reality (MR) — a technique where three-dimensional holographic images, graphics and data are dynamically interwoven onto real-world environments. Initially they will be developing a series of lessons in geology, chemistry, physics and biology. Each lesson is to be delivered by a virtual professor and include tests, lab work and holographic games to consolidate learning.

“What makes mixed reality particularly well-suited for a learning environment is that teachers and students are able to see and interact with the same hologram at the same time, as well as with one another. This is extremely conducive to collaboration and team work,” explains Yakubov. “With a 3D visualization it is much easier to understand the connections between atoms, complex working of human organs or explain physical and chemical phenomena, so students better understand those subjects, stay focused for longer and engage with their learning.”

Holograms for everyone

But Yakubov also believes that such powerful educational content should be universally accessible, so HoloStudy decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help subsidize some of the MR lessons so that students will be able to see how the world was formed, travel to the center of the Earth, study its chemical and mineral composition, experience the biological diversity of Earth’s inhabitants, and develop an understanding of the laws of physics… for free.

The chemistry course, for example, teaches concepts such as the structure and properties of atoms and how the bonds between them interact through intermolecular forces to form different substances. Since these things happen on a molecular level invisible to the naked eye, the ability to bring them to life through interactive visualization is a powerful tool for teachers explaining such complex phenomena and processes. These 3D holograms are dynamic enough to allow students an in-depth exploration of the structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, identification and taxonomy of different living organisms or the dynamics of stars and entire galaxies.

When he first heard about the Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality headset in April 2016, Yakubov was already familiar with virtual reality technology but was somewhat put off by its somewhat closed nature. He says he was very impressed with the suite of developer tools offered by Microsoft, however, and soon came to realize the potential of these advanced 3D holograms to solve all manner of business problems in a wide variety of industries.

Developing for the HoloLens

“With HoloLens, it felt totally different. Pretty much immediately I had the idea to start developing mixed reality applications for it,” he recalls.

Their first pair of HoloLens arrived in June 2016, and it was used to develop the first HoloStudy geology lesson. This was indeed offered for free at the Microsoft Store, where it was rated among its top 10 best applications and downloaded by over 600 people by November, quite a remarkable feat considering how this isn’t yet a mass-market device. In fact, one of HoloLens’ creators, Alex Kipman, was among the first users to test it. On Sept. 1, that geology app became the first Russian-language HoloLens application to ever be uploaded to the Microsoft Store.

Their course content is based on U.S. and European curriculum materials, and lessons are developed in collaboration with experienced teachers and scientists from leading universities and think tanks. Additionally, HoloStudy is also actively seeking further partnerships with educational institutions to transfer their content to mixed reality.

The goal is to gradually release this core content over the next 9 months, with the first two lessons in each subject scheduled for completion by April and the full program of eight lessons per subject available in September 2017. They plan to first release these into markets known for embracing cutting-edge technology in education, namely the U.S., South Korea and Finland.

How much of this content can be offered for free will depend on the outcome of the crowdfunding campaign, but their objective is to create at least four subjects that are entirely free, with subscriptions for the remaining content starting at just under $50 per year for one subject.

Empowering teachers

By May 2017, they also hope to roll out a suite of tools that will enable the teaching community to start creating user-generated content. The team is developing a lesson creator editor to allow anyone to design their own lessons, even without any programming experience. Teachers would be able, for example, to easily put together a holographic tour or presentation around a three-dimensional model, and then share or monetize these in a marketplace similar to what Udemy currently offers.

Bridging the gap

The major obstacle that arises from being at the forefront of a technological shift is its relative high cost for early adopters. The HoloLens developer kit, for example, is priced at around $3,000 dollars, yet it is likely to become much more accessible as consumer and industry demand for mixed reality increases.

Additionally, there are interesting initiatives — such as Zapbox and Bridge — looking at solutions for bridging the gap between such advanced hardware as the HoloLens and entry-level experiences, much in the way that Google Cardboard has done for virtual reality. In the meantime, however, projects such as HoloStudy — as well as the work done by Case Western Reserve University where the HoloLens is already used to teach anatomy classes to medical students — provide an important proof of concept on the tremendous impact that this technology can have for global education.

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