Visual Technology

The Classroom in 3D

Districts are ‘future-proofing’ their schools with new projectors built to bring the three-dimensional experience to students. Now they just have to wait for content providers to catch up.

When the future arrives, Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District will be ready. The 1,000 3D-ready projectors the district is in the midst of installing in its classrooms will see to that.

The installation is part of a $300 million, six-year capital improvement initiative. And while the new projectors are doing their job in 2D for now, Boulder’s administrators are betting that the machines will eventually allow students to explore unknown reaches—from inside the human body to the outer edges of the solar system—without leaving their seats.

Boulder is out front of what is expected to be a growing trend in the coming year as more and more manufacturers release 3D-ready projectors targeted to the education market, and content developers begin launching 3D educational tools. Meanwhile, several districts, including Boulder, plan to participate in pilot projects early this year to evaluate 3D’s academic value.

“Children are seeing 3D movies more than ever in theaters,” says Dave Duncan, education worldwide business development manager for Texas Instruments (TI; ), whose DLP technology powers the 3D projectors now arriving on the market. “Why not in classrooms? It’s going to be very, very exciting.”

In assessing the classroom potential of 3D, experts point to its capacity to enhance visualization. That could prove useful in classes such as geometry, in which the third dimension could illustrate complex spatial concepts, and biology, where 3D could be used for frog dissections or to show images of cells. Subjects such as astronomy, history, geography, art history, and earth sciences would be enriched as well.

The technology will ultimately allow schools to maximize student experience while doing little harm to their budget, says Juan Alvarez, US education director at BenQ ( ), which released its 3D-enabled projector in 2009 (see “Market Watch,” next page). Through 3D content that can lead virtual tours of museums or famous works of architecture, Alvarez foresees students getting a taste of things beyond the reach of most field trips. “Bringing in the 3D experience makes all the difference,” he says.

While 3D technology—which creates the illusion of depth by presenting each eye with a slightly different image—isn’t new, the ability to bring it into the classroom cheaply using only a single projector is. What once required two synced projectors can now be done with one, which makes using the technology simpler and more affordable.

TI’s DLP technology uses microscopic digital mirrors to create two images on the screen at once by dividing the projector’s 120-Hz output between the viewer’s 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 projecting three-dimensional content, 3D-enabled projectors function in standard 2D. In addition to the projector, making the switch to 3D requires active-shutter glasses (and a way to sterilize them) and a computer with a high-end graphics card.

“The technology challenge has been solved,” Duncan says. He adds that although there’s not much 3D content yet available, districts like Boulder are “future-proofing” their classrooms by adopting the technology now. “A director of technology needs to be thinking that it may be another five to 10 years before he can purchase projectors again. What’s going to come out in that time?”

About 15 manufacturers will have 3D-ready DLP projectors for sale this year. Among the companies already in the game are Sharp ( ), Mitsubishi ( ), Viewsonic ( ), and Optoma ( ). For most projector manufacturers there is no price premium for 3D capability, though users must purchase content and glasses.

As for what schools should look for in a 3D projector, the considerations are largely the same as when purchasing a standard 2D unit. Schools need to assess the classroom environment to determine brightness and resolution needs.

“They need to think about all the other stuff,” Duncan says. “Then they just need to say, ‘By the way, we want it to be 3D-ready.’”

Boulder’s director of instructional technology, Len Scrogan, says the district’s projector selection process wasn’t driven by 3D capability, but rather cost of ownership, video and image quality, durability, and product warranty. After a high-tech shootout among about 50 different projectors, the district chose Vivitek’s ( ) DLP offering, Scrogan says, based primarily on how well a student sitting in the back of a classroom could see the image, plus a lower cost of ownership than what accompanies LCD projectors.

Still, Boulder, which had recently upgraded to a 10-GB network, made a point of getting ahead of the curve, Scrogan says, by selecting 3D-ready machines when they made their purchase.

New Products

Market Watch:
BenQ ( ). The company’s 3D-enabled projector touts low noise levels that make it easier for students to hear, and an operating temperature that is on average about 10 degrees cooler than what other projectors run on. The BenQ model also includes a protective shield around the device’s lamp to protect students and teachers in case the lamp bursts.

Mitsubishi ( ). Mitsbushi entered the 3D-projector race in September with the release of a 4,500-lumens device that includes built-in audio and also allows a teacher to speak over a video. The projector has closed-captioning capability and a “visual PA” feature that enables a school to send emergency messages though the projector that might otherwise be sent through a public address system.

Sharp ( ). Six 3D-ready models targeting classroom use are set to come out early this year. The projectors feature BrilliantColor DLP technology and built-in audio, and range from 2,500 to 4,500 lumens of brightness to accommodate a variety of classroom sizes.

While 3D projectors cost about the same as 2D units, active-shutter glasses can be pricey, though Duncan says TI is working with manufacturers to bring the cost down. BenQ’s Alvarez says he thinks many schools will opt to reduce the cost of implementing 3D by purchasing several sets of eyewear for the entire school and loaning them out to classrooms on a sign-up basis, whereas certain classrooms—those most likely to use the technology often—may have an entire 3D setup.

“It isn’t something you do every day,” Alvarez says of using 3D in the classroom. By sharing equipment the investment becomes minimal.

While the projector technology is available to bring a third dimension to students, the absence of one fundamental piece is still keeping them from getting the complete experience. “The biggest challenge for K-12 is where do we find the content,” Scrogan says.

Although the availability of 3D content is lagging behind the rollout of the hardware, it is likely to catch up quickly. Projector manufacturers say they anticipate 3D will follow the same trajectory it did upon entering the movie business: The technology will be put in place first, creating a market for content and cueing the content makers to get to work. And Duncan says that’s already happened.

“There are people out there now working quickly to get content out,” he says, noting that Safari Montage ( ) is working with BenQ and AVRover ( ), a maker of portable AV systems, to deliver a library of 3D content, and expects to release it later this year. Other companies working to fill the content gap are Discovery Education ( ), Promethean ( ), Eon Reality ( ), and RM Educational Software ( ). According to Duncan, TI is involved with several of them as it helps to orchestrate case studies and pilot programs.


For sharing 3D technology among classrooms, AVRover and BenQ have partnered in the development and release of the 3D Rover, which includes an entire 3D system—BenQ projector, glasses, speakers, computer, eyewear sanitizer—in a rolling steel console that can move from one class to the next.

There are several types of content that educators and product developers agree will be best suited for the classroom, including video, simulation, and learning objects. Of course, the real test of 3D will be how well it boosts student learning, a question that will be answered as school districts roll out pilot projects in the coming year.

In Boulder, one of the first districts to launch a pilot, teachers will finally get to flex the 3D muscle of the district’s new projectors. “I think everybody’s excited,” Scrogan says. “But we’re also wary—we’ve seen a lot of hype. We’re looking for real educational value. Period.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of THE Journal.