Most of the 3D content now available for education targets math and science.

Most of the 3D content now available for education targets math and science.

At last year’s InfoComm, North America’s largest conference dedicated to audio-visual (AV) technologies, the big story was the emergence of 3D projectors for education. But while several companies demonstrated projectors that could display three-dimensional images with the help of special glasses, at the time there was not a lot of educational content available to justify an investment in 3D projectors for the classroom.

Fast forward to this year’s conference, held last month in Las Vegas, and that has changed.

At least a dozen companies now offer three-dimensional learning content, according to industry sources, and some of the major players in the educational video market are rumored to be developing 3D content as well.

One company displaying its 3D content at InfoComm 2010 was Tactus Technologies, best known for its V-Frog virtual dissection software. Tactus has released a new version of its software that lets students using stereoscopic 3D glasses explore virtual dissections of frogs, flatworms, jellyfish, and sponges in three dimensions—making the images come alive for students, and helping students visualize the special relationships between various parts of the anatomy.

The 3D version of V-Frog is included in a bundle of 3D science software from Tactus that also includes virtual tours of the cell, the atom, motions and forces, and earth-science fundamentals, said Young-Seok Kim, the company’s senior scientist.

Michael Williams, a sales manager for the professional division of XpanD Cinema, which makes active-shutter 3D glasses that work with DLP-Link technology from Texas Instruments (TI), listed 10 companies that now offer 3D learning content, including Tactus. Another of these content providers, JTM Concepts, has partnered with XpanD to bundle its content with XpanD’s 3D glasses and Sharp’s PG-D2500X projector, a 3D-ready DLP projector that offers 2,500 lumens of brightness and a filter-free design.

Included in this bundle are 10 interactive, 3D simulations covering topics such as flower anatomy, the solar system, shape measurement, crystal systems, atomic structure, and photosynthesis. The simulations are from a larger library of 3D content from JTM, called Classroom3.

As the materials from Tactus and JTM suggest, the 3D content now available for education is still mostly science and math-related, said Len Scrogan, director of instructional technology for Colorado’s Boulder Valley Independent School District.

But Scrogan, whose district was one of the first in the United States to install 3D-ready projectors last year, agreed the number of providers with 3D content for education is on the rise, and he said the subjects with the best potential for growth in this area are “social studies and health.”

JTM is in the process of designing 3D content for social studies, Williams said, and Amazing Interactives Ltd., a U.K. company, offers some 3D geography and history content as well, covering topics such as Egyptian medicine and military aircraft.

In a move that could further boost the availability of 3D content for education, Discovery Communications, along with Sony Corp. and IMAX Corp., have formed a joint venture to establish the first dedicated, 24-hours-a-day 3D television network, says Kelli Campbell, senior vice president of global product and content strategy for Discovery Education.

“The network will feature high-quality premium content from genres that are most appealing in 3D, including natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, science, and technology, [as well as] motion pictures from Discovery, Sony Pictures Entertainment, IMAX, and other third-party providers,” Campbell said.

She added: “Discovery Education has always benefited from being a division of Discovery Communications, the world’s No. 1 nonfiction media company. … In the future, we will continue to work collaboratively with our partners across Discovery’s family of networks to bring educators the content they need in all formats.”

Sales of 3D projectors also are on the rise: According to TI, more than 300,000 3D-ready DLP projectors have been installed in classrooms, board rooms, and a variety of other environments worldwide. A number of companies demonstrated new 3D projectors at InfoComm, including BenQ, Christie Digital, and Sharp, which has doubled the number of 3D-ready projectors it now sells (to 10).

How effective 3D content can be in enhancing teaching and learning remains to be seen—but early results seem promising.

A pilot project in the Rock Island, Ill., school district last year showed dramatic improvements in students’ understanding of earth science. To see how well 3D content worked as a teaching tool, the district set up an experiment in which a high school teacher taught a ninth-grade lesson in earth science to four sixth-grade classes. Two of the classes were demographically representative of the district, and the other two consisted of low-income students. For each type of group, one class was taught using JTM’s 3D earth-science content, and the other served as a control group.

“In the first school, the control group test scores increased 9.7 percent [between pre- and post-lesson assessments]. But the group that received its lesson in 3D saw a 35 percent increase,” said JTM Director Tracey Masamoto. “And in the second school with low-income students, the score improvements were 9.7 percent for the control group and 23 percent for students who received the 3D lesson.”

“This was a dramatic difference—for both our teachers and students,” said Rock Island Superintendent Rick Loy. “The improvements were significant and frankly, amazing, compared [with] traditional textbook methods.”

Boulder Valley’s Scrogan said five of his schools are evaluating the use of 3D content in science and math classes. Teachers have noticed an increase in student engagement, he said—but “we don’t care as much about engagement. We care about learning results.” He added: “Our initial pre-post test performance appears promising, and we start a university study on effectiveness this fall.”

The first challenge in implementing 3D for education was, “Where is the content?” Scrogan said. “That’s coming in a very big way.”

The next challenge, he said, is: “What kind of content makes the most sense: movie segments, learning objects, micro-simulations, complex simulations, or content creation?” Those are decisions that individual schools will have to make.

A further challenge will be “establishing technical standards,” Scrogan said. “Most of the vendors have their own proprietary drivers, players, and protocols. This just won’t work. Schools won’t want to deal with this.” Another key challenge “involves design standards that minimize motion sickness; we are working on classroom guidelines in this area.”

Other emerging challenges in teaching and learning with 3D content include “greater simplicity and ease of use for teachers, overly-restrictive content protection schemes, and realistic licensing costs,” Scrogan concluded.