Some organizations are looking to a new form of virtual reality to conduct research, educate students and accomplish medical tasks.

Take the Bullis Charter School, a kindergarten through junior-high school in Los Altos, Calif., which is building a fabrication lab (FabLab) that will use technology complete with  a pair of 3-D glasses, a stylus and software integration -- along with 3-D printers --  to allow students to create things in the 3-D space, and then materialize their creations once they’re complete.

Developed by a company called zSpace, the new product allows its users greater immersion in their work, while facilitating a work environment more in tune with the 3-D world people are used to. The leap from 2-D to high-resolution 3-D on a person’s desktop is so dramatic and beneficial, said Chief Technology Officer David Chavez, that this technology will eventually become a standard part of a computing work environment.

Bullis Charter's Superintendent and Principal Wanny Hersey said via email that such technology supports the school's mission of individualized learning. The school provides a wide variety classes and programs, from things like Lego robotics to guitar, and this FabLab, she said, was a natural extension of the school’s mission to provide opportunities for their students to pursue their passions and discover new areas of interest.

At a cost of about $60,000 for equipment -- which includes the zSpace system -- the FabLab will give students a head start toward a career in IT or engineering, if that’s what they want, Hersey said.

“Students will now have the opportunity to use the latest technologies to create and test a prototype for their solution, in a process that mirrors what takes place here in the Silicon Valley,” she said, adding that traditional education models have not provided students with such opportunities, and the Bullis FabLab is an opportunity to provide their students an opportunity to learn by doing, while providing a model for other educational institutions to see what’s possible.

And across the country in New  York, the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine also is deploying a virtual lab using the system -- which costs  about $4,000 --  that will allow students to perform autopsies on virtual cadavers.

“It’s going to make a lot of people a lot more productive. There’s no question about it,” Chavez said. “Our vision is to give this to everybody. And there’s no doubt in my mind it’s going to happen. It’s that significant.”

Any applications that involve imaging, he said, such as CT scans or MRI, would benefit tremendously by entering a 3-D interface.

As seen in the video below, the system works in a fashion somewhat similar to what Tony Stark uses in Iron Man to virtually build and perfect his suits -- but perhaps a very, very early iteration. People use a stylus to pull objects out of screens into the air in front of them, rotate objects and perform various other spatial tasks, and sometimes share the vision with another user wearing their own pair of 3-D glasses, as the system is designed for collaboration both locally and remotely.

What using the technology is like is difficult to explain, Chavez said. “I tell people, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever worked on. I’ve been making things in Silicon Valley for almost 30 years now, and this is the most exciting. I’ve never seen anything elicit such reaction from people. … It’s almost impossible to set people’s expectations too high.”

And the benefits in the educational and medical field are tremendous, Chavez said.

“They think students will be more immersed,” he said, noting that students will spend more time because, in the case of the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine,  virtual cadavers have many advantages over a real cadaver.  "If you make make a mistake," Chavez said, "you just put it back.”

Just as with any virtual system, the zSpace 3-D system allows for functions like adding or removing layers to an image, turning it or undoing a mistake -- only everything is in 3-D.

Additionally, the zSpace system provides users with 1920 x 1080 resolution as they sit at a desk and use a stylus, whereas traditional virtual reality uses a “cave” that the user must physically walk into while wearing a headset and pointing a device at the walls, he said. The ability to sit at a desk provides comfort and precision, while making collaboration much easier, he added.

“It’s just the beginning,” he said. “It’s our first product. Some people say, ‘Wow! That’s really cheap for what you get’ and other people say it needs to be a lot lower [in price] for mass penetration."

And, Chavez says, both of those things are true.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com