ZSpace virtual reality system makes science class look like 'Iron Man' lab

ZSpace brings virtual reality technology to the classroom

Heart dissections in science classes have always been a messy affair. For years teachers have cut open cow’s or sheep’s hearts to show students how they look inside, and, while students get to feel and see the heart, they can’t watch as it beats, because the animals are dead. They can’t see the individual heart strings or the finer details of the chambers, valves and veins because they’re all layered on top of one another. That’s about to change.

At dozens of schools across America, including 11 K-12 districts in California, schools are adopting zSpace, a virtual reality system that lets schools “bring to life” abstract and often difficult-to-explain classroom material.

Created by the Sunnyvale, Calif., technology company of the same name, zSpace stations consist of large screens connected to PCs that teachers and students can use with special 3-D glasses and a stylus pen. When kids put on the glasses, images appear in 3-D, not too different from what one would expect in Tony Stark’s Iron Man lab. Cameras on the screen track the user’s head movement, letting them move closer to get a better view of objects. The stylus lets users pick up things and see them from every angle.

In a biology demonstration at Egan Junior High School, a middle school in the Los Altos school district (the first district to pilot zSpace for schools), students see a beating heart in virtual reality. They can pick it up, rotate it with the stylus, and peel back layers so they can see how the heart looks inside as it beats. They can stick a miniature camera into the heart to see parts of it close-up.

“In this virtual reality, we’re not bound by things like materials, gravity here on Earth or air friction, so the kids are able to see physical concepts that we learn and talk about, but they can’t see,” said Egan Junior High eighth-grade science teacher Andrea Olarig, whose classroom has about half a dozen zSpace stations. They can set up experiments “that I wouldn’t be able to set up for them in class.”

When Newton’s First Law comes up, “the kids have trouble visualizing that because we don’t have zero gravity and zero friction environments here on Earth,” she said. “But we can model that... in zSpace.”

The system isn’t limited to the sciences. The stations include programs for teaching evolution and history. At a nearby elementary school, STEM teacher Grace Choi uses zSpace to teach students about electrical circuits.

“It’s a hard thing to teach when you’re saying the electrical current is flowing and you can see it being evidenced by having a light bulb light up at the end,” Choi said. “But to actually get the understanding that the electrons are moving… the students can now actually see that.”

ZSpace released an earlier version of zSpace in 2011. Educators in medicine and robotics were the early adopters. K-12 programs in California started last year. A set of 12 stations costs schools $50,000-70,000 for hardware, software, professional development and support services for teachers.

“Our goal at zSpace is to be real-world virtual reality,” said zSpace’s director of educational solutions, Elizabeth Lytle. “We see ourselves as differentiated from the head-mounted displays because of the ability for the students to work together and collaborate… without having something cover their face.”

Since it’s so new, schools have yet to track whether the technology improves classroom results. But so far, the students seem to like it.

“It’s way more fun and interactive,” said Nikolas Gibson, an eighth-grader in Olarig’s science class. “You actually get to experience and see [what you’re learning], and that’s not something you can normally do.”

Twitter: @traceylien

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