OCEAN CITY — As a group of curious children put on their three-dimensional glasses and began exploring on the large computer monitor in front of them, a resounding “eww” echoed around the room.
Inside the zSpace virtual reality bus filled with dozens of high-tech computers and parked outside the Ocean City Primary School on Thursday afternoon, students in second and third grades got a taste of virtual reality.
Using the handheld “stylus,” students virtually explored a human heart, saw a butterfly up close and pulled out the different layers of the Earth, reading brief descriptions about each.
“It’s weird,” third-graders Brynn Gallagher and Kailyn Kelly of Peg Dunner’s class said in unison, when asked what they thought about virtual reality. Taking turns on the same machine, they each felt the heart pumping their hand as they pulled it out of the screen.
“It’s like I’m squeezing it,” classmate Anthony Pontari said, holding his hand out in a squeezing motion.
Students point to different items on the program with the handheld device and press a button to grab. Once they grab the item, such as a heart or a model of the globe, they can move it, turn it and pull it out.
These are three of more than 400 activities available on zSpace, a California technology firm that has provided virtual reality systems to about 500 schools across the country. Much of the company’s clientele are schools in New York, Florida, California and Texas, but the company has 15 schools signed up from New Jersey, with hopes for more on the way, said Lisa Grippo, a zSpace regional sales director who walked students through the program on Thursday.
An entire zSpace lab of 10 machines typically costs about $50,000 to $60,000 for the software, hardware and on-site training, Grippo said. She did say schools can opt to take part in the company’s subscription program, which allows schools to bring in the technology and the training program for $22,000 per year for up to three years. After that three-year period, the school then owns the technology, Grippo said.
She also said schools can decide to purchase the technology outright after that first year, and the company would apply a significant percentage of what schools have paid toward the final purchase price, although she said she couldn’t recall exactly how much of money already paid is put toward the final price.
While the cost might keep a zSpace lab from coming into Ocean City’s schools anytime soon, primary school Principal Cathy Smith said Thursday that the company offered to come to the school and demonstrate the technology.
“Right now, it was just to experience it,” she said. “It was just something the kids could have fun with.”
Randy Kohr, in his first year as the primary school’s computer science and technology teacher, worked with the students inside the bus, helping them use the technology if they needed assistance.
“Today was just to get kids exposed to it,” Kohr said. “I just wanted to bring it here, have them try it out, get excited about it and get their minds thinking outside the box in terms of technology.”
Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said in an email that school administrators always look to bring new technology into the district.
"It is technology that we would consider in the future," she said of virtual reality learning.
Grippo said the company began using the bus as a way to bring the technology to schools across the country and have students and teachers try it out.
If schools decide to purchase the technology, the company helps set up a zSpace lab inside the school, with about 10 to 15 computer stations, depending on class size, for students to work on.
“Our goal is to make it so that there’s a reason for every teacher to bring their students into zSpace,” she said. “We just think it’s an incredible way to learn.”
She said that in most curriculums, students don’t use zSpace throughout the day. It’s typically used sporadically by classes throughout the year to add a more practical element to material students are learning, she said.
“They’re not in this all day long,” she said of students. “You need to mix it up, in terms of how you’re teaching. It’s not replacing teachers. You’re not replacing all the classes. It takes learning to the next level. It’s meant to enhance the learning.”
After students from Mikenzie Helphenstine’s third grade class wrapped their session, Grippo asked them what they thought about the program.
The responses came: “Cool!” “Awesome!” “Cool!”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or 609-365-6173.