Bringing the classroom to life.

Imagine a pendulum swinging. Easy, right? Now imagine a graph linked to the pendulum showing the mathematical curve representing its displacement from equilibrium in real time. Not so easy? Some things are difficult to visualize unless you already know and understand them. This can be a problem in education, especially in subjects like physics or computer graphics, where dynamism and movement are important. For these, a simple blackboard, a static medium, isn’t always sufficient. NYU’s Future Reality Lab has set out to tackle the problem using emerging technologies like virtual reality.

Staying close to their mission of exploring “how people will use future mixed reality technologies to better communicate and interact,” The Future Reality Lab developed ChalkTalk, a visualization tool that can animate simple drawings and let you interact with them. Just sketch the pendulum, set it moving and see the information appear before you in real time. Think of it as a magical crayon: you can draw something, make it move and then play with it. This is knowledge coming to life, an abstract concept moving from the theoretical to the practical.

The Future Reality Lab’s Director, Ken Perlin, sees VR as “opening up a door between teacher and student,” helping pupils feel more involved in the curriculum. ChalkTalk is already being used in classrooms to teach computer graphics, animation and sound processing, but it could also be used in subjects like physics and chemistry, as well as for students who respond well to non-traditional teaching methods.

The program also subtly shifts the power relationship inherent in many classrooms. Now, the lessons sit between teacher and student in midair, a neutral space that can be adjusted, questioned and tested — together. Everyone in the class can get involved and push one another, which, according to Perlin, “is where the really good learning happens.”