Local entrepreneur strives to bring augmented reality into classrooms

By Sarah Richardson

Smart phones. Some can’t live without them, while others hate the very idea of them. Depending on who you talk to, today’s phones seem to either be categorized as a nuisance and a threat to the very foundation of society, or an essential tool that is necessary to navigate modern day-to-day life. To local inventor and entrepreneur Nima ShahabShahmir, they can be a tool to increase student’s interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. With his new app Project AR, he aims to use augmented reality to enhance learning in schools by simply using the phone in each student’s pocket.

According to a 2018 Pew survey, 95 percent of teens in the United States own a smart phone. With that amount of tech in every pocket, utilizing it to the student’s advantage is a smarter financial move than buying everyone a new Chromebook or iPad for learning enhancement and coursework purposes. “Even though some schools use student-issued computers or iPads,” said ShahabShahmir, “teachers are not always used to that technology and they have to totally redesign their coursework to accommodate this change in some instances. With an app, this will allow teachers to basically teach their same lesson plans while simply adding an interactive dimension to their courses, instead of redesigning them.”

ShahabShahmir defines augmented reality, or AR, as a real space with simulated images added or changed through the use of technology, like his Project AR app. This is different from the more popular virtual reality, or VR, where the user is immersed into a 3D space that is totally simulated (think of an IMax movie theatre that goes all the way around your field of vision, where every direction you turn, you see the same field of view as you would if you were actually there.) With AR you can see what is currently around you, and simply project something into that space.

For example, if you were in math class, you could project a graph in front of you or right onto your desk. For science purposes, you could project an outline of internal organs right onto a classmate or diagram. Geometry would be easier to learn if students could project 3D images of shapes right into the air instead of trying to picture a 2D textbook diagram in 3D.

“It would really make math less boring and dry,” said ShahabShahmir. “It will help keep that interest.”

Nima ShahabShahmir is pictured wearing AR goggles that keep the smart phone in place while using augmented reality. Photo credit Nima ShahabShahmir.

He got the idea to develop his app after First 2 Network sent him to the Globalminded conference in Denver, Colorado, where he was able to experiment with AR and VR technology. “After using that tech, I wondered how I could put it into a classroom setting,” he said.

First 2 Network is a West Virginia based organization that aims to help first generation college students be successful in STEM majors. ShahabShahmir is also a member of the group’s committee, as well as a student leader. First 2 Network is able to help these students with funds from a National Science Foundation grant.

With the help of some funding through the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, ShahabShahmir was able to start the Project AR app development. WVU Tech LaunchLab is assisting, as well, with the business side of things.

“Right now we are on step one, baby steps,” said ShahabShahmir. “I can project things in AR onto a piece of paper, such as videos that move when the paper moves. For step two, I want to be able to scan the surface environment and judge depth for projecting both large-scale objects and smaller objects.” With depth-gauging enhancements, students could hypothetically see a life-sized rocket sitting in the middle of the school football field, or a smaller version of that same rocket right on their desk.

“I really think this would help students get involved in STEM, there are a lot of future opportunities in the STEM fields for students right now.”

ShahabShahmir continues to work on fine-tuning his app, and hopes to soon complete a BETA version to give to teachers. ‘If they like it, we’ll have to see what any hang-ups are and go from there,” he said.

Anyone interested in seeing some of WVU Tech’s ideas in action can check them out at the West Virginia State Fair in the WVU Building on August 9 and 10. For more information on First 2 Network, visit them on Facebook @First2 Network or online at www.first2network.org.

An example of what the user sees through the Project AR app. The image is split so one picture goes to each eye, allowing for a more immersive experience while wearing the headset. Photo credit Nima ShahabShahmir.