In a textbook, the nucleus of a cell appears as a sphere, usually with a cutaway view to reveal the structures within so biology students can learn their form and function. But take a tour of the cell in virtual reality, and the nucleus looms like the Death Star as you approach, details of its alien landscape slowly coming into view. As a narrator points out structures and explains their functions, you can pick them up, rotate them, examine them from every angle, and if you want, just for fun, throw them off into the distance.
Sushmita Chatterjee, a former IT executive in the corporate world, has started a business on Herrontown Road that aims to bring virtual reality experiences like this to students. Learnroll Immerse is focusing on science because lessons can be brought to life in an extremely vivid, immersive experience in either virtual reality or 3-D movies.
“When I was growing up, we hardly had any visual things,” Chatterjee says. “Children now play a lot of video games. We thought this was a way to engage them better as opposed to a child sitting and the teacher at a blackboard.”
Chatterjee says the main reason for her career change is her older daughter. “She is a high school student right now, and for a long time she said, ‘I’m not good enough for science.’”
Chatterjee’s daughter’s comments reminded her of her own experience. She grew up in India where her father was a mechanical engineer. Chatterjee was interested in art, but her father warned her that being a painter was a hard career. He encouraged his daughter to study engineering too, but she resisted because she found the subject difficult and boring. Chatterjee’s father took her through some experiments and even showed her the chemical refinery where he worked. For Chatterjee, what was abstract and boring on paper became real, and she herself went on to earn a degrees in engineering and physics at M.S. University in India. She then moved to the U.S. where she worked in IT for companies in the New York area.
Now Chatterjee wants to offer the same revelation to her daughter in high school (as well as another daughter in elementary school) and other potential scientists, and she believes virtual reality is a great way to do it.
Although Chatterjee does not have a background in education, she worked with her business partner, Karen Dentler, an assistant dean at Rutgers University, to develop lessons, which are based on the National Research Council’s curriculum for high school students who want to take pre-med classes in college. Dentler also helped recruit qualified tutors, most of whom are teachers, work with the students, either one-on-one or in groups of up to three, taking them through VR lessons and then discussing what they saw.
“A central part of the curriculum is the human body,” Chatterjee says. “Trying to understand the human body is hard using pencil and paper.”
Kids can take the lessons for $300 for three lessons, with a $150 first-time discount, which is comparable to other tutoring services.
Chatterjee says she plans to expand the VR lessons to other subjects such as language and math. She has also had interest from a police officer in using the technology for self-defense training, and a Marine officer who thought it could be useful for training.
At the Learnroll offices, on the second floor of 1000 Herrontown Road, Chatterjee has set up a room just for VR simulations, with two headsets, one an Oculus Rift, the other an HTC Vive. Both devices require a clear space and sensors placed throughout the room, so that the user can walk around in virtual space without danger of tripping over anything.
When a user dons a virtual reality helmet, they cannot see their non-virtual real surroundings, but a blue grid appears if they get too close to the boundaries of the designated area. Chatterjee watches them carefully to make sure they don’t fall or trip over the cables that connect the headset to the computer.
The VR programs that Chatterjee uses are like guided tours, with the user standing in some kind of bubble or spacecraft-like vehicle as it flies through the bloodstream, cell structures, or other parts of the human body. The user can’t control where the ship goes, but they can look around in all directions and manipulate models of the structures being explained. Chatterjee says teenagers adapt to the virtual world quickly and enjoy exploring what they can do within the program, but adults are sometimes confused that they might have to look up or down or turn their heads to see something of interest.
Chatterjee is at home with VR technology since she worked with it in her previous career. For the past 25 years she has worked in IT with companies like United Health Group, Accenture, and the New York Stock Exchange. Some of the companies were using virtual reality setups for meetings and training.
She says interest in her service has been intense, with good attendance at a recent open house she held. In addition to tackling academic subjects, Chatterjee plans to offer a class for students in shooting 3d movies. The technology also has potential for special needs students, she says.
Another technology on the horizon is augmented reality. Unlike VR, which places the user in a completely simulated environment, AR allows users to see the real world but superimposes information or graphics on top of it. For example, a mechanic taking working on an engine could use an AR headset to see labels on the different parts of the engine, or where different wires lead to.
Chatterjee says AR is not quite immersive enough yet for use in an educational environment but expects that it will be before too long. The technology is developing rapidly. Facebook bought Oculus Rift in 2014 for $2.3 billion, and has heavily invested in improving the technology to eliminate some of the obstacles that make it a less-than-ideal experience for some users. For example, nausea can set in if the frame rate of the VR display drops below a certain level.
Chatterjee, a resident of Belle Mead for the past five years, believes she is breaking new ground with her tutoring business and does not know of any other tutoring services offering virtual reality experiences.
A photo collage on the wall of the studio hints at another goal of Chatterjee’s service: The display shows Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and other women scientists. “I think more women should get scientific knowledge,” she says.
Learnroll Immerse, 1000 Herrontown Road, Princeton 08540. 609-921-0800. Sushmita Chatterjee, owner. www.learnrollimmerse.com.