An Edmonton-based non-profit focused on extended reality is marking Virtual Reality Day by celebrating a new partnership that will give thousands of Alberta students access to XR development tools.
ELIXR, which seeks to advance the use of XR experiences in education and healthcare, is hosting an event at MacEwan University on Nov. 19 at which it will announce a collaboration with EON Reality, a California-based company that specializes in XR education.
The new partnership is a big step in furthering ELIXR's goal of greater adoption of XR to benefit students, said biomedical engineer Martin Ferguson-Pell, who founded ELIXR and serves as its president.
"The cool thing about this is that we now have through this collaboration 4,100 licences that we can provide to post-secondary students across Alberta. Open source. No cost. This gives them access to the whole EON platform," he said. "That means educational material development tools, digital assets that they can use to make their own XR experiences, and the distribution system. So if they create something, then the distribution system will enable them to market internationally."
Since 2019, ELIXR has brought together 11 Alberta post-secondary institutions and industry partners to find ways to take the XR developments happening in the province and get them into the hands of people "that can make them work for them and add value."
Post-secondary education is one of the big markets for this kind of technology, said Ferguson-Pell, a former dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta and one of the leaders of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab. He estimated that in the English-speaking world alone, there are nearly a billion instructor hours every year, and broad potential for learning experiences to be improved by incorporating XR elements.
"The reason for that is because a lot of things that we learn are either multi-layered or three-dimensional," Ferguson-Pell explained. Studying anatomy, for example, and trying to learn the workings of a lung or structure of a joint by flipping through two-dimensional pages is challenging "because it's not natural for us to learn a three-dimensional object in two dimensions," he said.
"Whereas what extended reality can do is create an interactive experience so that you can go to that three-dimensional element and look around, look at the structure, peel things back, or take them and remove things that are getting in the way of what you want to see, and really understand in detail how a structure works."
Outside of campuses, these educational tools are starting to be adopted for use in professional training as well. The industry is still quite young, Ferguson-Pell said, and at the beginning of the curve of growth. But companies are already producing applications for continuing education in healthcare, oilfield training, and even coaching customer service workers through interactions with difficult customers.
Although ELIXR isn't itself developing new XR applications, it acts as a bridge between academia and the XR industry, fostering opportunities for developers to create content that responds to the post-secondary market, Ferguson-Pell said.
"What ELIXR can do is work between those two worlds – the industry studio developer world and the subject-matter expert world of the university. To bring them together, and glue together the components we need in order to have a successful application that is going to be helpful to our students and accurate so that the students can trust the information they're learning."
Virtual Reality Day is an annual global event that started in 2017 to help virtual and augmented reality become more mainstream.