Redondo Beach company’s virtual reality software promises to bring classrooms to life
by Rachel Reeves
In the time of the coronavirus, we reporters do most of our reporting from a distance. We use Zoom or the phone. I’ve even used Facebook for interviews. Last week, though, was the first time I’ve interviewed anyone in virtual reality, as an avatar communicating with other avatars being controlled by C-level executives in Silicon Valley.
My avatar introduced herself to Charletta Louis, CEO of Erlybird Incubator, and Robert Mattison, the organization’s chief marketing officer, in a virtual version of a summer day, on the back patio of a sleek, modern building, beneath a blue sky. We were there to talk about a virtual-reality technology Mattison said will “revolutionize the world,” which could change everything from education to entertainment.
The real version of me was standing in a Hermosa Beach office with Jimmy Cole, director of business development at Erlybird. Cole moved to Redondo Beach six years ago; he said he’s “never leaving.”
His is a story about opportune timing. Two years ago, a friend purchased a German patent for a technology he could not have expected would become quite so relevant.
Virtual reality (VR) technology has existed since the 1960s, but what’s different about this technology is that it allows for hands-free voice communication between up to 40 users. Typically, VR headsets use devices similar to walkie-talkies to establish an audio connection between users.
The headset I wore in Cole’s office was designed by Oculus. It takes you into a virtual world, designed by Arthur Technologies, where avatars can walk, sit, move, grab, and write. The people directing them can hear you speak clearly and you can hear them.
Three months ago, Cole’s friend who owns the patent on the communication component of the technology approached him.
“He’s like Jimmy, I don’t know what to do. You’re creative, what do we do with it?” he recalled. Cole took the technology home, where his 13-year-old son was struggling to learn through a flat screen, as most students have been.
“Lo and behold,” Cole said. “I was like, what if we create a classroom?”
Cole took the idea to Erlybird. Now, executives are meeting with partners in the healthcare, retail, and entertainment industries, as well as in education.
“Obviously, we can remove the social distance concerns and Covid concerns and everything that is affecting education today,” Mattison said, as his avatar presented a three-dimensional textbook, opened it, and turned it around in mid-air. “We’re really providing a solution for tomorrow.”
His avatar then produced a three-dimensional shape, demonstrating what it would look like to bring a geometry textbook to life.
“Instead of just flipping through a Powerpoint presentation, we can create an environment that is part of that history, part of that curriculum,” I heard Mattison explain. “We can bring objects in for chemistry. We can bring mathematics to life. We can bring history to life.”
Mattison’s avatar turned to a whiteboard and began to write on it.
In a virtual classroom, every avatar can take screenshots that are either emailed to them or saved to their local drive. They can save written notes and voice notes. They can insert any files that are already available in the cloud — images of books, PDFs, a digital dog — into the environment. A teacher has digital tools that can track time spent in the virtual classroom, as well as their interaction and participation.
Cole described case studies of kids with ADHD, who had been able to focus and engage in a virtual reality classroom.
“The normal, standard turning the pages and looking at pictures doesn’t stimulate their brains in the same way,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this child who’s had trouble learning really excel.”
There are myriad applications for this kind of software, Mattison explained: education, but also retail, entertainment, and even healthcare. For celebrities, virtual reality concerts would eliminate concerns about stalkers, paparazzi, and exhausting travel. People could livestream a concert or a meet-and-greet through their headsets but also through their computers.
“It’s not just bringing people together from a distance,” Mattison said. “It also is a mindblowing [window into] how we’re going to engage. It’s not intended to replace analog and in-person because we’re humans and we do need in-person, but this is far superior to any [platform] streaming video because with learning, you need to be engaged, and if students aren’t engaged, they’re not learning.”
Cole was guarded about disclosing the partnerships Erlybird has been entering into, but mentioned often that these include school districts, cities, and major retail outlets. Erlybird has, in fact, already built virtual trade shows for retailers in Manhattan Beach, featuring realistic products a consumer can look at and turn around in mid-air.
“I’m a very passionate, excited person, and this here just has me bubbling over,” Cole said. “I can’t really say too much, and that is driving me crazy. I really think this could change the world.” ER
by Jen Ezpeleta