Tech Talk: A New Dimension

Is 3-D technology coming to the classroom? I say maybe, others say yes. Over the next five years, cost will suppress its acceptance as a viable education tool. A counterpoint? Think back to what you were doing in the year 2000. Since then, the iPod, iPhone and iPad have been invented. Facebook and Twitter weren’t yet in anyone’s thoughts. What we are going to see in the next 10 years will make the last 10 look like slow motion, and 3-D graphics are going to be a huge part of that. But like so many high-tech predictions, hype generally outpaces reality.

So, is 3-D technology really the next major upgrade for schools? Do teachers even want 3-D technology? Institutions will be facing the inevitable marketing blitz from vendors for 3-D, so it’s wise to look at some of the issues surrounding 3-D technology:

•Cost. To capitalize on 3-D technology, schools would need ultra-fast screen-refresh rates and cables that can transport the gigantic 3-D files from Blu-ray players to a screen. That typically translates into a new Blu-ray player and a new big-screen television. If schools want the surround-sound experience, they also will need to purchase a multimedia receiver.

Just as it is true at the movies, students and teachers will need 3-D glasses, which will be different from the throwaway version you may have worn for "Avatar." Schools will need sophisticated, battery-powered glasses crammed with electronics. Putting the 3-D magic into glasses means the specs have to synchronize electronically with the TV. The 3-D screens rapidly flash alternating images for the left and right eye. The glasses open and close shutters over each eye so that each sees only the image intended for it, which is from a slightly different perspective. That gives the illusion of stereoscopic or three-dimensional vision. Additionally, eyestrain is a potential problem; some users have reported symptoms such as headaches and nausea.

On average, these glasses cost about $150 a pair. Multiply that by 30, and that’s a nice chunk of change for just one classroom.

Content. Where is the 3-D content that is targeted for education? There isn’t much, and it is probably going to be several years before enough content is available.

Three-D projectors and TVs aren’t the only products coming to education institutions. Thanks to developments in handheld technology, students soon could have glasses-free 3-D displays in the palms of their hands.

Several manufacturers say that in the future, document cameras, microscopes, low-cost camcorders and other devices will have 3-D capabilities.

The other side. Three-D projectors now are being piloted in some schools. The rationale: They give all students, especially those who are visual learners, a better chance to understand the curriculum. Images appear in three dimensions when the projector’s 120 Hz output is divided equally between the left and right eye. Three-D video creates the perception of a differential between two slightly offset images when viewed by each of two eyes. By presenting each eye with a slightly offset or different image, a projection system or display can create the illusion of depth. One key feature of this new technology is that the 3-D projector also can function as a 2-D projector. Glasses are included.

Bottom Line

All too often, educators are required to make students take three-dimensional concepts and learn them in a two-dimensional perspective. This disconnect creates a gap in learning between those who naturally can map back to three dimensions and those who can’t.

Right now, 3-D technology is a vertical market because so many factors have to be in place for 3-D to work correctly—glasses, glasses maintenance, high-end laptops with high-resolution graphics cards, new projectors, specialized content and specialized lighting. My best guess is that only specialized tech-science labs will use 3-D heavily, and it might be another few years before this happens.

C. William Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Young Harris, Ga., a firm specialized in education facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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