Improving Learning Experiences Using Virtual Reality With Anurupa Ganguly

The traditional classroom has always been a challenge to develop by the authorities. Every student has their way of learning, such as visual, auditory, and spatial learning. Combining these types of learners in one room with the conventional blackboard teaching may not be as effective as we thought it would be. Anurupa Ganguly, Founder and CEO of Prisms of Reality, shares the wonders of immersive virtual learning and how we can evolve the old-fashioned way of the current education system. Listen in the conversation and understand the advantages of adding interactions and virtual experience to improve learning conditions.

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality Learning

 

I’m so glad you joined us because we have Anurupa Ganguly here. She is the CEO of Prisms of Reality. She has taken research from STEM and so much more and incorporated it into virtual reality for teaching students in K-12 and beyond. What she’s doing is so fascinating. I’m looking forward to this.

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Improving Learning Experiences Using Virtual Reality With Anurupa Ganguly

I’m here with Anurupa Ganguly who serves as a CEO at Prisms of Reality, which she founded to transform the math learning experience and close the stubbornly persistent STEM opportunity gap. It’s so nice to have you here, Anurupa.

Thank you so much, Diane. I’m excited.

One of my favorite guests, Todd Maddox, introduced us and he said that you’re one of the most impressive individuals he’s ever met, and coming from him, it’s a pretty good thing to say.

Todd is kind. That’s also one of his classic qualities.

He is a great guy, but you are impressive. I was looking at your company site. This is so fascinating. That is the coolest thing I’ve ever had to look at what virtual reality has turned into. I love anything that education-based and virtual reality-based, so I could see why he introduced us. I want to get a background on you and how you got to be to this level of CEO at Prisms of Reality.

I’ve been in STEM education for many years. I started as a student of engineering at MIT and there, I became compelled in all the good and not-so-good ways about how fragile understandings in math were the key differentiators between those who were successful and those who weren’t. To be clear, I don’t mean procedural prowess. Suffice to say, many kids know how to do well on the next math test. I don’t think we have an issue with that. There are a lot of online video answer sets. People know how to gain the system to get the five on AP Calculus or the X1 they need to move forward.

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality Learning
Virtual Reality Learning: All these equations we learned in algebra have been taught like they’re these dismembered abstractions.

 

What I found was that it was the structural and the flexibility of thinking that one needs to contribute to the mathematical sciences that we’re lacking. When you had students who are highly motivated and dedicated get into space where they were told, “You’re so good at math and science your whole life,” and that was pressure tested. When they had to, instead of reproducing and replicate, they had to contribute, that’s where the rubber met the road. To learn more about what was happening at the K-12 level, I became a high school physics and math teacher in the Boston Public Schools through the Teach for America program. Since then, I’ve been able to serve in a number of district leadership roles in New York and Boston. What I’ve found is it’s quite simple.

There are two predictors of post-secondary success in STEM and one of them is your ability to rotate 3D objects in your mind. In other words, spatial reasoning. The Soviets figured this out in the 1970s and were able to rehaul their curriculum decades ago. The US had a botched implementation through the new math program in the 1980s. It’s not to say that we haven’t known this for a fact for some time, but the implementation apparatus required for any new curricular initiative. It takes a lot of thought around the teacher experience and that the AID and the assessment structure. I wanted to name that though, this is something that’s not coming into the fold around how we design curriculum. We’ve known this for quite some time.

The second key predictor is your ability to abstract math models from physical experiences. That means it’s like the Newtonian trope. I’m sitting under a tree, an apple falls and I have the thinking to be able to mathematize that. What I found more simply is that we learn best through moving, through visualizing, through perceiving, through experiencing, and all of these are woefully underrepresented in our curriculum tools. As somebody who was in charge of closing the opportunity gap in STEM across the largest systems in New York. I was at the New York PTOE, Boston Public Success Academy in New York City. I didn’t have the tools that I needed to solve this problem at scale. I started Prisms to build a learning platform that scales these pedagogies that I named that we know work best for student learning.

We learn best through moving, visualizing for proceeding, and experiencing. Click To Tweet

There’s just so much there and it’s so fascinating to me since I’ve taught and dealt with it. My last book was about perception. You talked about learning about perceiving. I dedicated that book to my seventh and eighth-grade algebra teacher because he had such a huge impact on my love for math at the time. I was obsessed with algebra at that age because it was something I don’t think I would have loved if it wasn’t for him. This guy was crazy too. He made it fun. He would climb on the chalkboard and yell at it and say, “X plus two equals Y.” Whatever it was, they’d say, “You get off there.” He’d scream at the chalkboard.

I thought, “This guy was interesting.” It made me love math. It’s hard to get kids to love math sometimes. He was one of the factors that made me want to go that way. I noticed after I left his teaching, it was never the same again. How do you keep those passionate people? Some people can instill that in you and you’re dealing with the K-12 age. That’s a hard thing to do. You’re talking about teaching-learning methods. What are those methods?

In the description of your teacher, there are a few things that stick out. This notion of associations. You said that there was this equation on the board and he would yell and there was an audio association. He would say, “Get up there.” There’s a physical association. That’s what we’re missing to the sticky learning. How do you build in during proficiency and memory with certain mathematical ideas? Part of that comes from the fact that all these equations we learned in algebra, they’re like these dismembered abstractions. They don’t come from anywhere. One day you’ll throw up an equation, Y is equal to five to the X. No one knows where it came from.

Nobody was a part of the creation of that. That’s what we’re trying to get under with Prisms. To your point around, what does cause sticky learning, as you experienced in your classroom. One of them is immediately relevant. It’s what students say all the time. “I’m sitting in class and learning all these procedures. I have no idea when I’m going to use them.” All of our learning modules are driven by problems. We don’t say, “Hello, class. Today you’re going to apply linear function.” Right then and there, you kill the intellectual needs because you’ve created these inauthentic confines of how people learn something new. Instead, what we do is immerse you in a problem. You have no idea what math is going to come out of it, but you experience a problem.

In our case for the first module we built, you experience the spread of a virus. We don’t tell you it’s multiplicative growth and get into exponential functions and give you any terms. That’s something powerful is how does this put people authentically in situations that create the need for math. I keep throwing all these sayings out there, but necessity has always been the mother of invention. In the math classroom, that’s been underutilized. The second thing that you touched on is the notion of this kinesthetic tactile learning. Einstein had this lovely writing where he said that he conceived of, E=MC² when he was riding his bike. It’s this notion of movement is correlated with learning.

We try to think about, as students are going through this physical experience. From there abstracting up to create 3D visualizations, then going to 2D visualizations, and finally going to the 1D, how do they gesticulate, how they move, how they represent their thought. In general, the representations of thought in the traditional math classroom have been so narrow the way in which you can communicate your thinking as always in writing and equations and/or 2D diagrams or visualizations. As an educator, there are so many ways that you communicate thought.

Those are the two kinds of big things. One is that relevance and not relevance like Jack and Jill went to the store to buy apples. That’s fine, but there are compelling issues in our society that kids are passively watching. Be it the pandemic, the conversations are about global warming, or on urban urbanizations and what it means to maintain quality of life and police brutality. There are so many things that kids are talking about in a highly emotional way. What we strive to do is help them use mathematical models to not take away their emotional response, but to have a healthy discourse about it.

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality Learning
Virtual Reality Learning: It’s not difficult to modulate VR for engagement.

 

As you’re going through that, I’ve taught a lot of classes where they get into trying to figure out you’re visual learner all of the things that you were mentioning that not everybody learns the same way that they need different aspects. You’re incorporating all these different aspects. As you were saying, the relevance, the personal experience in different things, I was thinking of, “Is it the Peggy Sue Got Married movie where she goes back in time and she has to take algebra and she tells the teacher, ‘I know from personal experience, I’m never going to use this,'” but we do use it. You do recognize that you’re using it. Even when you’re trying to figure out a percentage tip and things, I’m like, “I learned that in Mr. Tate’s class.”

I hear a lot about STEM. When I talk about curiosity, for example, and I share some examples of how kids lose their curiosity as it peaks around age five, and then starts to tank dramatically after that point. I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. It’s pretty popular. He’s talking more about creativity, but it ties into the curiosity research. They’re both tanking around age five. He was saying that we’ve gotten too much into almost getting away from the creativity aspect. He almost goes to the sciences and technology being such a focus. Do you think that we need to have it more balanced? What do you think the issue there?

The issue is how we’ve put all of these subjects into different boxes. I learned abstraction at the dancer. I spent decades learning Indian classical dancing, as well as the new classical singing. Both of them were entirely the art of how do you take a highly abstract thought and communicate it. In dance, it’s through movement and in music, it’s through frequencies and the different inflection that you use in your voice. There are these ideas that cut across discipline and the more we can focus on those through lines of learning and how that manifests through different subject matters. I’m not insinuating that music is the same as math. What I’m trying to say is that these foundational core competencies that kids are lacking, which are the reason why they can’t continue on with their studies.

As an educator, there are so many ways that you communicate thought. Click To Tweet

If we can ground all of our subject areas in those core competencies, then not only are kids going to be able to make connections across their learning, but they’re going to be able to see more interdisciplinary connections. I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to be DaVinci, but I do think there’s something there around the multimodality of learning and each of these subject areas. Whereas to your point, people have boxed in history is where you debate and where you have conversations about society and civics. Math is where you do this. The more we can move away from that, it’s valuable.

The last thing I’ll say there is people have asked me like, “Can I use your module in science class?” I scratch my head. I’m like, “You could but it is a module that’s aligned to exponential functions, creating tables, graphs, and equations of a multiplicative pattern.” It’s fully common core aligned for math teachers at the middle and high school level. I could totally see about the teacher using it or a history teacher using it when teaching about one of the barriers to global pandemics that we’ve encountered in the past. I’ve been wrestling with that myself, Diane. I don’t have the best answer except for the fact that I do think there is a lot of cross-cutting opportunities that have been underutilized.

This reminds me of when I used to watch the television show Numbers. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that but it got me into math. I was taking Statistics at that time and it made me like Statistics better because they were showing how they saw certain patterns and things. It made me look at Math like, “That’s cool how it ties into this and that.” Sometimes they keep things so separate. As you said, there’s an equation on the board, but it means nothing because of where did it come from and why kind of thing. I was looking at your site and the very first thing I see is you with the headset on. I’m trying to visualize is that a set headset that the students would use or is this a representation of technology? What is the headset?

All of our learning modules are built on the Oculus Quest and Quest 2.

It looks a lot like mine, and I’m like, “I love that thing.”

It’s an incredible piece of hardware. The whole premise of what we’re building is that it’s hard to get that level of immersion and visual learning through computer software that’s modulated by a mouse and a keyboard. It’s the student inputs are finitely less. The implementation model is that for any topic, let’s say the case of algebra, we have five multi-part modules in immersive virtual reality. With the kids putting the headset on working through and exploring and discovering and gaining deeper understandings, but when they come out of the VR, it’s important their assessments remain tied to opportunity. I’m not suggesting that we have this rich exploratory curriculum, but we don’t map to conventions and paper, pencil exams. We help bridge that gap for instructors. We’re able to understand that to the immersive virtual reality that’s not possible using existing tools. Here are all the offline conceptual activities and procedural activities to make sure that your children reach the fluency that they need. That’s the arc that we’re creating.

I’m trying to visualize what they’re seeing because when I put it on, I’m like in this room with fireplaces going or some guy’s talking to me by a spaceship. That’s the coolest thing. I had a technology course I taught. The students always tell me what the coolest tech is. Once you put that on, it is like the coolest thing. You’re in the Holodeck at Star Trek. What are they seeing?

I love that you said that because people have a perception of VR years ago where there were these negative connotations of nausea and discomfort. I started Prisms of Reality in 2020 and we are at a new point in the intersection of technology and education. It’s so important to get this word out of what the experience feels like now versus a few years ago. To your direct question around what do you see, let’s take the case of our first module. You put the headset on and you are in a food hall. You’re looking around and there’s a burger place and a sushi place, and you’re in a food hall. All of a sudden, there’s an emergency announcement by the mayor.

She’s announcing a lockdown because of the recent growth of a virus. You then have a superpower to go back in time and see, “I’ve been hanging out in the food hall. I didn’t know that we’re that there’s a virus spreading. What just happened? Did I spread the virus to somebody else spread the virus?” You get these magical powers to see those same interactions you went through. When she touched his hand, when this woman walked over that to that other group, you get this heightened level of awareness that there’s like that magical superpower aspect of VR, which is empowering for kids. It’s like you’re able to see something that you couldn’t in real life.

You build these physical associations, like, “When I touched his hand, it spread,” which is very different. A lot of the kids who have been testing this, they’re like, “It’s so different from looking at a video or read the New York Times.” We had one student, Jose, who said, “I knew all this. I was able to intellectually tell you about social distancing and masking, but unless I felt it, or I saw that the spread and how my actions impacted ten other people getting it, that visceral connection, you don’t get from reading a newspaper.” That has been powerful to that. That’s the first part of what you see and experience. It’s very visceral. You feel the growth in your body.

You then go into this high-tech immersive lab. A lot of our students love to spend time in the lab itself because classrooms are not aesthetically particularly pleasing. It’s a beautifully designed space with lots of different tools that can use. We have a 3D roving assistant that moves along with you, and she takes you through a set of tasks to solve the mission. You’re presented your mission because you join a task force to determine the number of weeks until the hospitals are going to reach capacity. It’s coming from the perspective of the citizenry and you’ve experienced the problem. How do we now go about mathematizing it so that we can make some decisions together as a community? From there on, kids use a variety of physical simulations where they can manipulate systems to see what does the spread look like under different containment protocols?

They use interactive tools to see the growth week to week, which is something that kids have a lot of difficulties seeing typically in a classroom. They use table tools, graphing tools, equation tools and all kinds of interactive. Kids are moving things around. They’re trying things out, a lot of conjectures and making mistakes. By the end of the second module, they solved the question of how many weeks. Roughly speaking, the first portion I talked about in the food hall is about twenty minutes and the second part is about 35 minutes. It’s not a long period of time, but we saw an overwhelming amount of learning growth in that short amount of time because of the medium.

I’m thinking of how students are going to react. It’s got to be an amazing experience. I always wondered how they create this experience. Do you have programming experience? I know I’ve used the Oculus app to download certain things. Is this something that people can download from the app Oculus?

To the first question about team, yes. I have a fabulous team of VR designers, unity developers, 3D artists, and sound and interaction designers who have created experience, as well as a couple of content developers. They have been instrumental in the nuance of the pedagogy and the sequence of interactions that lead to learning. VR historically has been a medium. That’s been associated with a lot of distraction because it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the multi-sensory events that it’s hard to focus and learn. The focus of our NSF phase one research was how do we build this pedagogical arc where kids are engaged in all this multimodal reasoning but can stay focused on the task at hand and learn?

That’s the first question about the team. In terms of where you can get it, our beta is up on the Oculus App Lab. the App Lab was created by Oculus to allow new developers to get their apps up for early access and test and have a distribution channel direct to our target users. There’s also the official Oculus Rift store and then there are other marketplaces, like the SideQuest VR marketplace, and then Steam, which has been around for a much longer period of time. That’s all for PC games. You’d need to be connected to hardware, but if you have the Oculus Quest now, you could get it.

If I look on Oculus, I’d look for what? Do I look under Prisms?

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality Learning
Virtual Reality Learning: Right now, teachers spend 90% of their time on the bottom 5% of their students.

 

When you go to Oculus, you click on Quests and then you can put in Pandemic by Prisms and you’ll see. It’s the third app. It says App Lab and clicks on that one app, and you’ll see our trailer and a little description. You can click download from there.

This Oculus Quest thing is amazing. I know sometimes we use the handset to work things or your fingers working. Are you working with the handsets or the fingers or both? I’m curious.

All of our interaction design is with the controllers but we’re looking to translate all of our interaction design to just using hands. That’ll be a whole new level of embodiment and interaction. We’re excited, that’s the next phase of our design.

Are they looking to make these headsets smaller and a little more comfortable? They’re bulky, it’s not like putting on a pair of glasses or that kind of thing. I never experienced Google glasses and what they were able to do. Do you see this whole realm getting smaller, easier, and more manageable?

I’m not on the hardware side, so I can’t speak to it with authority, but just to see that the progress that has been made from headsets from a few years ago to Quest 1 to 2, we can expect to see continued efficiencies and UX improvements with the amount of investment that Oculus is making into the Quest. It’s hard to say that we’re not going to continue to see that rate of growth.

How hard is it to create the programs that go in this? I’ve seen, like when you’re swimming with sharks and skydiving, you could see they have different photographers from different angles and different things to make it 3D. You’re not doing like actual rooms. Are you doing pictures like graphics?

We have 3D artists. We don’t use 360 videos. We’ve created all the scenes ourselves because of how specific the design is. What’s been interesting is people have been talking about it for a while. It’s the level of realism that you need so some people have more of a cartoonish style. We try to embody a slightly more realistic style without being too real because you get into people freaking out. We’ve been able to find that nice balance but it’s hard. I’ll be honest because there are a lot of things that go into this. One is like you said, the creation of all the scenes, the assets and the animations, everything that you see in the Lab is we’ve generated it.

The other is the interaction design. I have a fantastic VR designer, Maria, who’s based in New York. Our thinking is like, “How do we take this to this interaction that is inherently always been 2D.” They fill in their tables 2D and they create their equations and 2D. How do we make that meaningful in 3D? Going from that 2D design to 3D design, all that interaction while not having a very cluttered space and being able to do the math like a seamless UX, I think has been the market share of the work. The last thing is getting learning. I can’t stress this enough.

Dr. Rich Mayer who’s been a critical knowledge base for us, he’s been setting the impact of VR on cognition for a long time. In one of his studies, it was a biology topic. He had to report that learning through PowerPoint is more effective than VR, but that has less to do with VR as a medium and more around how do you modulate it for learning because it’s not difficult to modulate VR for engagement. That’s the low-hanging fruit. Everyone’s going to get in there and say, “It’s cool and awesome.” That’s why we haven’t seen that uptick in adoption because it hasn’t gotten to a point where it’s like it unequivocally solves the pain point in an enduring way better than anything else on the market. It’s done well for training. It’s taken off in corporate training and anything that is more like a physical procedure. There’s so much opportunity in the education space and I’m super excited to see the frontier of this work.

It’s an interesting thing for me to try to visualize in my mind that using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Scaffolding and different things that you do in education to see how you would go from one to the next, but it’s anything else it’s trying to get it into that 3D realm. How long does it take to create? You said it’s twenty minutes for the one thing. What’s the production time to create something that’s twenty minutes long?

Our NSF phase one research was eight months to create our prototype. We were creating everything from scratch and doing testing with kids every week. There was a lot of iteration, but now we’re moving out of the prototype phase. We’re creating a more scalable code base so that we can more easily, make changes to our modules and not everything is hard-coded. The hope is that now that we’re creating this more flexible architecture, we can more quickly create these modules between 2 to 3 months. We have teams of a couple of developers, a designer and an artist working on a few modules at a time.

It's easy to be so overwhelmed with the multi-sensory events that it's hard to focus and really learn. Click To Tweet

How many modules do you have? Is it just the one?

We have the one out but we are currently working on our next two on linear functions in quadratics. We’ll be building our modules on statistics and systems of equations. These five topics comprise a traditional algebra one course. We’re going to be launching across twenty districts. This September, we’ll be launching our full algebra library and the teacher dashboard. The one challenge with VR is a teacher can feel shut out. What problem are you on? What are you doing right now? You have a class of 30, you are officially shut out from what your kids are doing. We are building a synchronous teacher dashboard that allows a teacher to easily see class progress where the most vulnerable students are highlighted for her and kids can receive notifications on their watch.

A teacher can very quickly see like, “He first put in a linear function that went back and used that bar graph, but then still got stuck putting a quadratic.” A teacher is able to stay with and see what are the incorrect submissions and misconceptions, what tools kids are using and use that to input a supportive message or guidance to the student. That’s on top of the rules-based in architecture that we have in place, but using our NSF phase two, we’re going to be moving to incorporate AI-driven responsive methods with our learning assistant.

I’m thinking I downloaded a Star Trek to hop on that. You could be the captain or you could be Sulu or whatever the different people were, even though they weren’t exactly the Captain or Sulu, but they interacted. You can have a teacher in the class. Can’t you, in that respect, that they are one of the characters or not?

You could. That’s another layer of complexity that we haven’t pulled out yet, but absolutely. The vision would be for the teacher to be able to step into the environment with any student and work with them and to be able to step out and work with the next student. What’s important to us is not to over scaffold many EdTech tools. I gave you five questions on circumference. You got 4 out of the 5 wrong, so a little penguin who is going to show up and say “It seems like you’re struggling. What was the equation for circumference again?” They’re giving you the answer. We’ve been thinking a lot about like how do you use visual cues, make this a pattern highlight or an animation play so that we’re reminding them of a structure of a sense-making strategy versus feeding them the answer? It will get them past the question, but chances are there in three weeks, they’re not going to be able to reproduce that.

For me, math was easy, but history was horrible. It seems to me if I was watching history on something like this and you’re actually in the middle of people killing each other or whatever they’re doing in a not scary way for kids, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I can see so much more potential for it. When I traveled and I saw Pearl Harbor, it had a lot more impact on me than reading about Pearl Harbor. Are you going to go in any other areas other than math?

I started with algebra because that’s the Achilles heel in most public systems, but we’re going to quickly expand into the middle and high school sciences. Physics and chemistry, which once people have a solid foundation and grasp on algebra, those hopefully will be easier to access. Because of my STEM background, I’ve created the plan for math and science. I agree with you, there’s so much opportunity in history. You named an interesting point around design of how do you give people enough of a dose of reality without scaring them. We’ve been thinking about this a lot. We were going to create one on autonomous vehicles and we ended up moving away from it.

We were going to have the student as a passenger in an autonomous vehicle and trying to control its movements to understand how these things are programmed, how they make decisions and how engineers are thinking through these AI models. My designer ended up saying like, “No, that’s going to be so traumatizing. You’re putting that child through a car accident.” We had to back up from that. We’re at the beginning of figuring out what is that healthy line of being able to give kids authentic experiences to highlight a problem without having them need to go to therapy for two weeks after.

The cartoon-ish ones might be better for something like that than too realistic. When you get Wile E. Coyote running into the mountain, they don’t freak out. It’s an interesting future for education. How much of it are we automating of the teaching that we don’t need the teachers as much anymore? Do you run into that complaint at all?

Teachers spend 90% of their time on the bottom 5% of their students and the teaching professionals, I was having a great conversation with a colleague. He asked me, “Why do you think so many teachers are leaving the profession?” I said, “It’s simple. The teaching job is impossible.” I learned this when I was at success academies where we asked teachers to do so much. You might want to get a teacher to do it for 2 years, 3 years, but we have huge rates of burnout. What I’m trying to do is say all that heavy lifting of this rich, scalable pedagogy, so that teacher’s not like cutting out paper and having to create models.

We’re going to offload all that content and pedagogy and 3D interactivity and all this stuff that we know is great teaching and learning, but a teacher is it’s inhuman for our teacher to be able to do and build up the teacher as this strategic intervention. You have to know the content well. We’re not saying we offload content, so teachers don’t know the content. What the teacher can then do is use that data to strategically intervene for students that at key moments of struggle to think deeply about, what are going to be next steps using this data. To become a more strategic planner versus the person cutting up paper all night because they’re trying to create the experience themselves.

Another thought that came to mind was the costs involved. I was surprised by how inexpensive the Quest was though. I paid $400 or $500 where it wasn’t like a hugely expensive piece of equipment, but we’ve got a lot of kids and you’ve got certain areas that they don’t have budgets. How are you dealing with that?

The Oculus Quest is priced at $299 per headset, which is commensurate with most other hardware learning tools that run on the hardware that they have. A couple of things, one we’re focused on title, district to start that have quite a lot of money earmarked for digital learning solutions to close the gaps in math, literacy, science, and history. The other thing is that this 2020 with the COVID relief bill, the Biden administration passed $130 billion for schools to close learning losses, and a good 30% of that is dedicated to software and hardware investments. I’ve talked to superintendents who’ve said, “We are flushed with money. We don’t know what to do with the amount of money that we have.”

Suffice to say, I don’t know if the superintendents can say that in the year after, but it’s a great year to get this hardware into schools. I will say that even beyond that, we’re pricing our experience at $10 per student per year, which is absolutely within the budgets of schools. We’re going to be increasing that to $15 and $18 in subsequent years because we’re building out all the libraries. This year, it’s just algebra, next year, we’re adding geometry to the middle school, physical sciences, physics, chemistry, etc. Even then, $20 per student per year is absolutely within budgets. We did that very mindfully because we didn’t want this to become a resource that only some students can use.

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality Learning
Virtual Reality Learning: Many teachers are leaving the profession simply because the teaching job is impossible. We just ask teachers to do so much and do it for years. We have huge rates of burnout.

 

We will always have a direct-to-consumer model for parents who would like to have this resource at home. One of the things that we didn’t talk about is these are the content modules that we’re building, but we got this great tip from one of our kids who tested things. “I loved using that data visualization tool and writing tool, but what if I want to use that when I’m doing my homework tonight?” We’re creating this with this side app called the Mind Book that allows you to get into that 3D lab space and use the measurement tools and the circle tool and use these different 3D interactive to do your homework, to study for tests.

All this will be collaborative. We don’t have multiplayer built-in that’s going to be something that we build out in our NSF phase two R&D plan. The vision is that this is not an EdTech tool that you sit and work through by yourself, but you build on each other’s thinking and 2 to 3 kids can work on these problems at a time. We’ve done a lot of customer discovery and pressure testing of our pricing model. We believe that this is intended to be an equitable learning solution that everybody can access.

I must have paid more as I got a higher level of Quest, but I think that there were different levels as I recall. I thought that was reasonable even at the price I paid. I think this is the potential of what you can learn from this thing which is unbelievable. Where is your company located? Where are your headquarters?

We’re based in New York City. Our whole team is in New York. I am out in San Francisco for a few months. We’d been there throughout the whole pandemic and with remote work, I figured it might be nice to spend some time on the West Coast, but our heart and soul is in Brooklyn and I’ll be returning soon.

Are you looking to go IPO eventually? Is this going to be something you’d like to have another company acquire? What’s your goal for the overall outlook for the company?

Our first step is to establish a product-market fit. VR and education is not a new concept from a research perspective, but no one’s done it and commercialized a VR product and education successfully that led to learning and math. There is a lot of acquisition opportunities down the road with publishers that are trying to create VR within their offerings. Facebook and Oculus and all of the larger tech players are going to get interested in the education market soon. Right now, there’s a real emphasis on community, network and collaboration. There are a lot of opportunities for both exiting, as well as potentially going public.

The first step for Prisms is to validate that people do want a new way of learning. They’re willing to make that $299 investment. I get a lot of questions from investors and that this looks great. Are parents, teachers, and school are going to want to pay that $299 on top of they’ve bought Chromebooks. They bought MacBook Air. Are they going to want to immediately make an investment? My contention is yes because they are so disillusioned. It’s been decades that superintendents have been trying to close the achievement gap. They haven’t been able to because the learning tools fundamentally are not aligned to how people learn. If we can get our twenty lighthouse districts to show the jubilation, the joy, the delight, and the efficacy that students are now able to learn, this is going to grow like wildfire. At that point, Diane, the sky’s the limit in terms of the eventuality for Prisms, but I’m hyper-focused on that validation currently.

Are you going to stick with K-12? How about higher ed and beyond?

No, I definitely want to push into higher ed and beyond. We’re starting with K-12 because it’s my background and we can very quickly get this operationalized in schools. There are so many opportunities with vocational programming, and upskilling. Many boot camps require math credits that a lot of students don’t have. It precludes them from accessing a lot of technical programs. Higher ed, community colleges, vocational programs, the international private school market, the sky’s the limit. I do also think there’s a huge opportunity and corporate upskilling in STEM as well. There’s a lot of adjacent markets that I think could benefit from this technology.

A popular degree to get is in this virtual reality creation. I don’t pay attention so much to that tech focus. Is that the next big thing that people are going to? I know cybersecurity is huge but is this going to be the next big thing too for students?

Market trends do show that the huge increases in AR/VR as well as the intersection with AI, it’s going to blow up by 2025 and we’re at the beginning. The harder is question is that this in many senses futureproofs our kids. If they’re getting to access this technology early on and understand use cases and become familiar with it, it’s not going to be as foreign. I find that a lot of our kids who tested were much more fluent with it than some of our teachers. We’re putting a lot of professional development resources into making sure that adults who just haven’t had the same exposure and they haven’t been able to play around with these things and tinker as much as some of our kids have that we can close that gap. One of the impediments in the past to operationalizing emerging tech in the classroom is that your kids are great. They’re going to jump on like leeches, but there’s a little bit more trepidation. To help our kids be future-proof, we will have to future-proof the adults who are leading that revolution in classrooms.

To help our kids be future-proof, we will have to future-proof the adults who are leading that revolution in classrooms. Click To Tweet

You’d put that on for five seconds and you go, “Wow.” I had my interior designer at my house. I go, “You got to see this thing.” She’s like, “I’m going to buy one right now.” As soon as I got it, I was stunned by what it was able to do that I went and I bought my kids. My kids are in their 30s, but I immediately sent them each one. I go, “You got to have this thing. This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know why you don’t hear more about this, except for my tech students who know all that. Do you think this message of how cool this technology is, why isn’t it out there more or am I missing it?

Diane, I’m glad that you brought that up. As an entrepreneur, trying to scale this medium and get everybody to see its value because that’s what a founder does. You’re out there saying, “You have to see this. You have to experience this.” What I found was that there’s so much PTSD. I do believe that most of the PTSD come from the investment community. They made bets in VR years ago when the technology was in a very different place and they lost money. They’re scared and don’t want to support. If I was building anything else, we would be in a very different place now, but there’s a lot of fear. They’re like, “We have to see this much traction and many people buying it.”

I’m going, “This is hard to build. We need more support to build to get the traction.” It’s an interesting cyclical thing. I found that customers love it. Everybody I’ve tested with like students, parents and professors, they’re all over it, but I have found the funding community to be a little bit more conservative. As founders in this space, our role is to show validation in a meaningful way as fast as possible to start to turn around some of these negative experiences people had with technology years ago. I love that you’ve said this over again. You put the Quest on, you’re not thinking VR, XR. You’re like, “This is an incredible experience.” You’re not worried about the label and for a lot of folks, they just can’t get past the label.

How about putting the deck for the investors on as an experience? As they read your deck, they have to do it.

We’ve been trying to have these traveling headsets and get the experience because here’s the problem, Diane, is I’m trying to communicate a 3D experience with the PowerPoint. A gif is not going to show what this feels like when you’re in there.

If I saw a deck presented that way, I imagine. Where are you in the funding? Are you seed funding, are you Round A? I’m curious where you are.

I first raised the National Science Foundation SBAR grant phase one to build the product. I’ve opened a pre-seed round which I’ll be closing soon. I’ll be using that to launch to schools a full algebra library. The NSF phase two is about $1.5 billion and that’s a great opportunity. It’s also to non-dilutive. To all entrepreneurs out there who are looking for non-dilutive opportunities and that’s why I’m able to take us straight to our series A. so I don’t intend to raise again but I do have around open.

We’ll have a talk after the show. You are the first one on my show. I’ve had more than 1,300 people on the show and no one has been on utilizing Quest technology and that type of a thing. This is what I think is the most amazing thing that I had seen in technology. To add it to education, this was right up my alley, so I could see why we were introduced because I’m like, “This is just so incredible.” I thank Todd so much for introducing us. A lot of people want to know how to find you, your website or some way to learn more about what you’re doing.

First off, thank you so much for having me. I too haven’t spoken to somebody that understands the value of the medium. It’s been so undervalued for so long and then one day it’s going to blow up and everyone’s going to say, “What happened?” “You had your eyes closed for a long time.” In terms of finding me, our website tells our story pretty well. Hopefully, you’ll get all your information there, but it’s www.PrismsVR.com. You’ll find information about our approach, our team as well as our beta that we launched.

If you go to the Oculus App Lab, you’ll find our first module on the global pandemic and exponential functions that we tested with kids and teachers across New York, Boston and Florida. We’d love to get people’s feedback. I want to get as many people into our experience to do what you said, open up all the opportunities and possibilities of the medium and give us feedback because we’re building the full course now. We want to get this in front of as many people as to get that feedback and make our product better.

To my student, Connor, if he’s reading, thank you so much for making me buy this Quest because it is the most amazing piece of equipment. This made me be able to understand what you’re working on so much more because of my experience. You are going to be a huge success with this and I’m so excited for you. I’m so glad we met. Thank you so much for doing the show.

Diane, thank you for having me in for everything that you do as well. I look forward to next time.

I’d like to thank Anurupa for being my guest. This is such a fascinating subject because I bought that Quest device at Christmas. It was so unbelievably exciting to me that I’ve been trying to get people excited about this device. Not that I have any affiliation with them. I make no money from that but it is the most incredible experience and it’s so inexpensive for what you get. A lot of people would have fun trying out learning how to use that device alone, but imagine taking that and utilizing it to increase a student’s learning experience.

I see great things for Anurupa’s company and I’m very excited to have her on the show. We get so many great guests on the show. If you missed any past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamilton.com. You could find them there. You can listen on the site as well as on our AM/FM and podcast stations. Take some time to explore the site. You can find out more about curiosity and perception there. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About Anurupa Ganguly

TTL 285 | Virtual Reality LearningAnurupa Ganguly serves as the CEO at Prisms of Reality, which she founded to transform the math learning experience and close the stubbornly persistent STEM opportunity gap. Prisms utilizes immersive virtual reality technologies to actualize a pedagogy aligned to how we learn best – experiencing versus memorizing.

 

 

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