Teaching Life in Three Dimensions

How an oft-overlooked college and a local tech firm are reinventing biology class

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In the center of a dark and cavernous industrial space just off Interstate 15 near Flamingo and Dean Martin, a whorl of red light swirled 15 feet over my head, cupped in the air by an inverted glass-walled pyramid like something pulsing at the heart of the Death Star. Scattered throughout the space, images spun in three-dimensional splashes of light. Two life-size female models cavorted in the chilly air. All of these images were illusions—and, according to Dr. Andy Kuniyuki, Nevada State College’s dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, they’re a sneak preview of the future of teaching.

In fact, Kuniyuki says, what’s going on in this warehouse could change the way students perceive the very foundations of life. I met with Kuniyuki beneath the pyramid in the unadorned space that serves as both corporate headquarters and showroom for 360BrandVision. Together they are working to implement interactive holographic teaching tools into the undergraduate biology curriculum at Nevada State College and perhaps beyond.

We were joined by 360BrandVision COO Ron Martin, who brings his expertise in visual effects from his position as director of studio operations for the recently dismantled Digital Domain Media Group (the studio that resurrected Tupac at last year’s Coachella music festival and won a total of seven effects and technical Oscars).

More than just a static 3-D viewing experience, 360BrandVision’s holographic imaging, rendering and projection technology will allow students to interact with submicroscopic structures and be able to test their own predictions by reaching in and manipulating those structures. In turn, Kuniyuki says, this immersive experience not only engages students more completely in biology, but brings them closer to an almost metaphysical understanding.

“It’s not just learning the nuances of DNA, where the professor says, ‘What are the bases?’ and then you cough that out and get a check mark,” he says. “It’s answering much bigger questions for yourself, like ‘Is life just unique here, or is life demanded by the universe?’ Once students get this concept that life is demanded, they’ll be able to see that consciousness is also demanded, and we can show you why.” In this way, science meets philosophy—and even art. “You take the technical aspects of the interaction out of the equation, and you have a creative learning situation,” Martin says. “The goal of this is not just to present information; it is to evoke an emotion.”

Martin led us over to a system he called a “holographic poster.” An analog watch disassembled and reassembled itself in the air between a sheet of specially prepared glass mounted at a 45-degree angle and a mirror mounted on the wall. Martin tapped at his tablet, and the analog watch was replaced by a pale, translucent blue jellyfish swimming in space, its flagella mesmerizing in the dark.

“I whipped this together earlier this week,” says Martin, reading my thoughts. While beautiful and intriguing, it was hardly interactive.

“Sure,” he explained, “It takes more time to make it interactive, but the technology is readily available. We can build that digital sandbox for DNA pairing and bonding in three months. The rendering of this content is really no different than what we normally do for something that is CGI.”

Although they declined to go into the financial details of their arrangement, Martin describes the relationship between 360BrandVision and Nevada State College as an “explorative partnership,” and emphasized that “no taxpayer dollars are involved in funding our effort.”

Kuniyuki says Nevada State College expects to implement the technology this year. ”We’re not looking to have the bells and whistles integrated, but to have some of this technology available in lower-division biology courses in the fall, with further integration over the next few years. At the same time, students in our Visual Media program will be learning the fundamentals of converting and producing media for interactive holographic technology.”

This in-house development of expertise and materials, Kuniyaki says, will enable us to “build this concept through biology and then have it grow—first into other disciplines, and then on to K-12.”