3D Goes to School
A new generation of projectors bring Hollywood technology to the classroom.
Looking around the entertainment landscape, there’s no question—3D is hot. While Avatar rocketed past theater box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time, a flood of new 3D movies followed in its wake. Panasonic’s 3D televisions sold out within a week of hitting shelves and cable television networks are preparing to release 3D content.
But removed from the high-profile technology launches and movie premiers, there’s another place where observers say 3D is poised to take off: education.
In the past year, projector manufacturers have begun rolling out 3D models targeting the needs of classrooms, while makers of 3D content and accessories are responding by creating products to meet the needs of a burgeoning market.
In looking at the educational potential of 3D, experts point to its capacity to enhance visualization. That could make it a useful tool for classes such as geometry, for example by illustrating complex spatial concepts, and biology, demonstrating 3D frog dissections or showing images of cells. Other subjects where 3D could enrich learning include astronomy, history, geography, art history, and earth sciences.
“3D is a very technical term,” said Dave Duncan, education business development manager for Texas Instruments (www.ti.com). “As we start talking to educators, it’s really about this immersive world they’re going to be teaching in—3D is a means to create this immersive experience.”
The result will be allowing schools to minimize costs while maximizing student experience, said Juan Alvarez, U.S. education director at BenQ (www.benq.us), which released its 3D-ready projectors in 2009. Through 3D content that tours museums or famous works of architecture, students would get a taste of things beyond the reach of most field trips.
3D technology, which creates the illusion of depth by presenting each eye with a slightly different image, isn’t new; it’s been used in movie theaters since the 1920s. What is new is the ability to create 3D images inexpensively in the home or classroom using only one projector, instead of two synced projectors, making 3D simpler and cheaper.
As of Spring 2010, there were about 70 projector models on the market from manufacturers including Mitsubishi (www.mitsubishi-presentations.com), Dell (www.dell.com), Sharp (www.sharpusa.com), Optoma (www.optoma.com), and Vivitek (www.vivitekcorp.com). For most projector manufacturers, there is no price premium for 3D capability, with some models, such as a 2300-lumen projector from ViewSonic (www.viewsonic.com), available for around $500.
The new crop of projectors employ Texas Instruments’ Digital Light Processing (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. When viewed through special active-shutter glasses that open and close a filter in front of each eye in sync with the images, the picture becomes 3D. When not viewing 3D content, the projectors function as standard 2D projectors. Making the switch to 3D requires active-shutter glasses (and a way to sterilize them), a computer with a high-end graphics card, and 3D content.
“The technology challenge has been solved,” Duncan said. And although other components of the 3D classroom, such as content and lower-priced active shutter glasses, aren’t yet widely available, he says it’s only a matter of time before 3D becomes a standard teaching tool.
As for what schools should look for in a 3D projector, the considerations are largely the same as when purchasing a standard 2D projector. That includes whether a projector needs to be easily portable, how bright the projector must be, and how many data ports are required. Among the features that some manufacturers are highlighting in catering to the education market are ease of switching between 2D and 3D content, built-in audio, easy portability and setup, and additional safety features.
For Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, the decision to purchase about 1,000 3D projectors wasn’t initially driven by the desire for 3D capability, district director of instructional technology Len Scrogan, said. Instead, the 51-school district, which invested in the machines as part of a $300 million, six-year capital improvement initiative, focused on cost of ownership, video and image quality, durability, and product warrantee.
But the district, which had recently upgraded to a 10 Gb network, saw 3D as a way to enhance classroom learning and opted to get ahead of the curve by selecting 3D-ready machines when they were purchasing their new projectors. After a tech shootout among about 50 different machines, Boulder chose Vivitek’s DLP projectors, based largely on how well a student sitting the back of a classroom could see an image, and a lower cost of ownership than accompanies LCD projectors, Scrogan said.
For schools looking to install 3D in larger facilities, such as auditoriums or lecture halls, there are additional considerations. Whereas the other classroom solutions use active glasses, larger venues may be better suited to a passive polarized solution, similar to those used in movie theaters, Duncan said. That means instead of each audience member wearing active-shutter glasses that open and close in front of each eye, the setup would employ a switching mechanism in front of the projector lens that changes the polarization of the light. In that case, the audience would wear polarized glasses like the ones worn in movie theaters.
The passive technology also requires a silver screen to properly reflect light back to the audience. However, the glasses used in the passive system are less expensive than active-shutter glasses, so some of the cost is moved from active-shutter glasses to the switching mechanism and the silver screen.
While Boulder and other schools districts are outfitting classrooms with 3D capability, one key piece of the 3D puzzle still must be put in place—content.
“The biggest challenge for K through 12 is where do we find the content,” Scrogan said.
“It’s lagging, but it’s on its way,” Duncan said of 3D content. Makers of 3D-ready projectors say they expect classroom 3D will follow the trajectory of Hollywood: the technology will be put in place first, and the content will follow once there is a demand for it.
A host of developers are crafting 3D content in response to anticipated demand created by the new wave of projectors. Digital content creator SAFARI Montage (www.safarimontage.com) is working with BenQ to deliver a library of content, and expects to release it in mid-2010. Other companies working to fill the content gap are Discovery Education (www.discoveryeducation.com), Promethean (www.prometheanworld.com), EON Reality (www.eonreality.com), and RM Education (www.rmeducation.com), according to TI. Meanwhile, new projectors could offer an opportunity for students to create their own 3D content.
Of course, the real test of 3D will be if and how it enhances student learning. One early test in the Rock Island/Milan School District in Illinois found that 3D boosted students’ test scores. More than 1,000 students in grades three through six were given a lesson in calculating the volume of complex shapes. Student took a pre-lesson test and a post-lesson test, which showed that the 3D instruction boosted test scored by about 30 percent between pre- and post-lesson levels.
Another experiment in the same district divided students into two groups and administered a science lesson to each group on the same subject, though one group got a traditional lesson while the second group received a 3D lesson. In the first group, the difference between the pre- and post-test was about 10 percent. For the group taught in 3D, scores before and after the lesson increased by 35 percent.
To further explore the connection between 3D and learning, more schools districts are rolling out pilot projects to test out the technology in the classroom. In Boulder that means teachers and students will get to try out the 3D capabilities of their new projectors.
“The pilots are the next exciting part of the process,” Duncan said, “[to] validate that this type of learning will help teachers teach and help learners learn.”
Sara Stroud is a freelance writer based in Oakland, CA.