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Education’s New Frontier

Bringing multiple reality into the classroom

There are oohs, ahhs and sometimes “unrepeatable” words.

There is spinning, crouching, and head tilting accompanied by hesitant voice commands and imperfect finger motions.

But the very first thing they say is invariably the same:

“Oh my god.”

From freshmen to deans, each person has had the same reaction as they slip on the mixed reality headset in Professor Walter Johnson’s physics lab for the first time – and step into the future of teaching at Suffolk University.

“Everyone is like a kid in a candy store” when they first try multiple reality technology, says physics student Allen Alfadhel. “They start thinking about the ways that they can implement this platform into their fields.”

The multiple reality classroom

As multiple reality technologies—including virtual reality platforms like the Oculus Rift and mixed reality devices like the Microsoft HoloLens—evolve rapidly,  they’re being applied to everything from gaming to astronaut training to product manufacturing.

At Suffolk, Johnson is working with faculty across departments to pioneer ways to enhance classroom learning with holograms, simulations, and whatever comes next.

“I’ve been in education my whole life,” says Johnson, who was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation in 2005. “For me the most important question about any piece of technology is ‘how can I use it to do something better than I have before?‘“

Johnson has been teaching modern physics for decades. There are concepts — like waves moving through space and interacting with other elements — that are nearly impossible to draw on a board.

“If I just try to draw pictures, it’s hard for the students to grasp. But if I can make a hologram of it and let them see it from various angles, it’s a totally different learning process.”

Before & after: Holograms on campus

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About a year ago, Suffolk’s Chief Information Officer Tom Lynch encouraged Johnson’s interest in exploring uses for augmented, mixed, and virtual reality in teaching physics. Lynch and the University’s Information Technology Services department helped Johnson purchase three Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality headsets, as well as the high-powered computer needed to run the Oculus Rift virtual reality platform.

Over the summer Johnson and a core group of dedicated students experimented with the new gear. What started as a fun side project quickly became a healthy obsession.

“I tried it out. I tried to put things into it, deploy holograms, create things, learn about the formats,” says Alfadhel.

He and fellow seniors Mario Rojas and Paul Johnson used the HoloLens to conjure armored knights and spinning planets into the center of their lab. They completed spacewalks on the International Space Station via Oculus Rift. And when they invited a recent interior architecture graduate to visit, she used the HoloLens to design her new apartment layout in an empty classroom space in less than an hour.

The students are also using the headset to advance their radiation shielding research experiments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It soon became clear to Johnson, as well as College of Arts & Sciences Dean Maria Toyoda, that the applications were paradigm shifting and University-wide.

“Multiple reality is going to be part of all our lives in the near future,” says Toyoda. “The work we’re doing at Suffolk puts us ahead of the curve, helping students learn in more immersive ways right now.”

Building cross-departmental bridges (and holographic buildings)

Interior architecture program director Sean Solley’s work translated to the new medium almost instantly.

Johnson took a 3D rendering of a sculpture Solley designed and turned it into a hologram, allowing the piece to be placed into any room and viewed at any angle. The hologram helps to show scale, fit, and any design flaws that can be fixed before an item is actually produced—potentially saving time, money, and materials.

“What struck me about it was how immediately effective it was—how clearly it was going to transform the way we work,” says Solley. “It reminded me of the first opportunity to create a digital image. Nothing was quite the same again.”

Now two of Solley’s graduate students are using Google SketchUp to design entire buildings that are accessible via the HoloLens. By donning the headset, the designers can take clients through the furnished building floor by floor.

“It’s a very inclusive technology,” says Solley. “It engages more people in how the end outcome or the output of design is created. It is experiential, and that’s an important aspect of what we do as designers.”

Graphic design junior Anh Nguyen has spent the semester mastering the multiple reality design tools with the physics students. As part of an independent study, Nguyen is using her artistic talents to create holograms that help illustrate complex physics concepts. Johnson then uses Nguyen’s holograms as teaching tools in his classroom. It’s a cycle of cross-disciplinary learning that benefits everyone.

“People think that art students just like drawing and painting,” says Nguyen. “Now I can imagine myself having a job working with science.”

Into the future

In the past few months, Johnson has worked with faculty in physics, biology, chemistry, art & design, and engineering. He has lost track of all the demos he has done for faculty and administrators across campus, but his enthusiasm for expanding the use of multiple reality tech has only grown.

“It’s like being at the start of computers,” says Johnson. “Mixed reality technology is developing rapidly, getting better and cheaper with each new innovation. We’re in on the ground floor.

“The applications are in medicine, in law, in research, in business, design, history, English, you name it. You’re gonna see this everywhere.”

With special thanks to Professors Walter Johnson and Sean Solley and students Allen Alfadhel, Telvin Benjamin, Erick Bergstrom, Paul Johnson, Anh Nguyen, Jackson Nolan, Mario Rojas, and Jack Thomas for their time and talent creating multiple reality images and video.