Empowering Educators by Getting Immersive, with apelab’s Emilie Joly

We often say that some concepts can only be taught to students spatially, and getting them inside some VR is the best way to do it. Emilie Joly from apelab visits with Julie to explain how that same concept, applied to educators, inspired Zoe.com.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guest is Emilie Joly, and she is a CEO by day, an interaction designer by night, co-founding apelab, a Swiss-US software company bringing immersive technologies to the world. And with her co-founders, they launched an exciting remote learning platform called Zoe for teachers and schools around the world. Students are able to learn and build their own immersive experiences around curriculum-based subjects, using their visual soft programming tools and Unity game engine. Thanks so much for being with me here today, Emily. Welcome.

Emilie: Thank you, Julie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Julie: That’s great. Well, why don’t you tell me a little bit about the history of apelab, and then dive right in on how Zoe is helping people learn.

Emilie: I co-founded apelab six years ago now — so it’s been a while — with two other great peers of mine. We founded the company when we were still at university. Our background is we’re interaction designers, and we wanted to build 3D interactive experiences using our iPhones on 360 degrees. But there were no tools. We used the Unity game engine at the time, but it was still very early. And so we decided to build our own software tools. And the goal of those tools was to help non-coders, creative teams, creative people to build immersive 3D content without having to code. And so that’s how we started the company. We worked with different partners in the immersive space like Facebook, Google, HTC, did some work there. And then recently we decided to put all of our software tools in a platform called Zoe. And that platform is for teachers and students to take advantage of what we’ve built in the edtech context.

Julie: So can you tell us a little bit about introducing the concept? Because what you’re telling me is it’s a new way to tell stories. It’s a brand new way of storytelling. It’s three dimensional learning. It’s something that I felt very passionate about, how to introduce three dimensional learning into our classrooms to explore spatial presence and understanding, since that’s what– where we live in today. So maybe can you share some of the concepts that you use at Zoe to introduce why do we need this spatial understanding and three dimensional interactions?

Emilie: There’s something about being in a virtual space — in a 3D space — that makes so much difference. We are used to flat interfaces, but when you put students that are younger — like 12, 13, 14 year olds — into a 3D environment where they can fully interact with the space, and then you put them back into 2D flat interfaces, they don’t understand why we haven’t been using those 3D interfaces in the first place, because it’s much more natural. It makes a lot more sense for learning, and for creating, and also just for sparking imagination. These 3D spatial environments are very unique in terms of what, how, and what you can learn. And I think at least our approach is that we’re interested in giving– empowering the students to build their own experiences in that 3D world. So they are the ones creating the learning material for others, they are the ones telling stories, they are the ones building the stories. Like they would if they were doing an essay, or having to do an argument with other students.

Julie: So this is where the teacher’s role would come in to guide that education on what they need to create. Then, are there assets and tools in your platform that offer guidance?

Emilie: We were really focused on the professional learning aspect of things. So we work with educators directly. They’re helping us also shape the curriculum for different classes. But we have different kinds of educators we work with, whether it’s art teacher, computer science teacher, someone working on social impacts. There’s kind of a wide range. And Zoe is really made for educators to channel that creativity in students in different parts of the curriculum. So we also offer that whole professional learning side of things where to learn how to use virtual augmented reality in the class. How do you deal with the hardware? How do you setup a VR creation class quickly? So those kind of things we’re definitely working on and that’s an inherent part of Zoe.

Julie: Do you take the current curriculum that the systems are using already, and try and match it with how Zoe can support it?

Emilie: Yeah, we’re trying to find where in the curriculum the soft skills like collaboration and creation are the best fit. And to be honest, a lot of the inspiration for curriculum comes from the educators themselves, that are excited about bringing this into their classroom. And so they are the ones also kind of guiding us towards “Oh, I think I could really use this in that context.” And so trying to align as best we can in different types of subjects. So maybe I could give you also an example: last summer we did a summer camp with a school in San Diego. And the students were 12 to 15 years old. And it was a class from the US and a class from China working together. And the goal is they had to collaborate on creating an experience around the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. And so the first day they had a little bit of lecture, someone came in to explain how to work sustainably in agriculture, things like topics like that. And then the each had to team up in pairs of two, and they had four days to to create an experience around one of the United Nations goals. And the goal of the pilot here was to see with the teacher how would the students be able to create something from scratch. They had to do everything. They had to think about the experience, what they wanted to say, how the user was going to interact. They had to model all the 3D models they needed for their experience. They had to do the voice-over of their experience and then program it, in about four days. So that was super exciting and we ended up with four or five amazing projects. One of the team wanted to teach Chinese farmers how to unpollute their soil. That was their topic they wanted to cover. So they created this whole training session to teach farmers how to do it. And then at the end of the workshop, they wanted to go and sell it in China. So that was kind of cute. [laughs]

Julie: Wow. I’m sure– yeah, you see some of these different solutions that were never even considered before. And I think that’s the power of youth today, is that with their creative abilities, they can come up with these solutions and they can start to envision how to solve a problem. And that must be very exciting from your perspective of seeing how creative tools are leading the path to that.

Emilie: This is also where a lot of the educational department goals are to foster those 21st century skills: the problem solving aspect of things, entrepreneurship programs, things like that. And the future of work as well, these are skills all students will need in the future. Personally, I think virtual reality, 3D spatial learning, they’re just the perfect tools to do that kind of things and make it easy and make it interesting. So hopefully with Zoe we can also get educators excited about bringing this and pushing this more.

Julie: One of the big pain points — especially as we’re going through Covid-19 right now, and it’s the elephant in the room — the support for educators and their place and how they’re changing the way that they teach. Coming back to what you just said on how educators were saying, “Oh, this will be great to use with this classroom.” I really think that vision and impact that teacher wants to have, that’s that transformative nature they need to take personally to be able to be a great teacher in this new world, and complete with the respect and knowledge of the environment. But being able to introduce an immersive experience like this to a student must be very powerful. And if we can encourage teachers to do that more and more, I think that’s where the power of the classroom with a mentor and teacher like that has unlimited possibilities. So maybe you can just reiterate again how you support the teachers and the system to accept that they need to engage with spatial learning.

Emilie: Almost 100 percent of what we’re doing is is dedicated to the teachers, because they are the ones that are using this in very– and they already– I’ve met educators doing some really amazing things already, or are having ideas on how to do things. But then again, maybe the problem is the time that they have or maybe some of this is sometimes a bit too technical. And so we’re just trying to make all of that really easy. And also just fun for them, as well, to participate in that sort of community that we’re building is also exchanging ideas. Like if the educator works on something with students, then being able to share that with another school. And so we’re just trying to build that type of community and making it easy, basically. Trying to guide things and then keep it open again so that they can have their own ideas. But just guiding through all the basics, like the hardware, the software, what you can do, what are the possibilities? And then taking it from there.

Julie: So maybe we can just touch base on the hardware side of things, because that’s obviously another big piece of this puzzle. And how do you help educate the educators about the hardware? What hardware does your software support, and what are those tidbits of advice on HMDs that educators need to know before bringing this into the classroom?

Emilie: On the hardware side, there’s definitely the– today, there’s difficulties in just acquiring the hardware these days. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but some of the headsets aren’t even– you can’t even order them right now. But some of the things that we’re addressing– we have partners, we’re partnered with most of the hardware people. So we’re trying to help the schools connect to some of the headsets. The one that we work with the most are Oculus, and the Oculus headsets: Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift. And then the HTC headset. So we’re focused on the higher-end type of headset, because Zoe allows you to build within virtual reality, so you need controllers and you can walk around and things like that. So these are the headsets we’re supporting. But one thing we also did — I think might have been due to the pandemic, and the remote learning aspect of things — but we also worked on a mobile version of Zoe. So that is going to make the hardware side of it easier, meaning that you can have– sometimes students can’t stay in the headset for too long. It’s not recommended, either. So we’re trying to make it so that you can build with Zoe from the Oculus Quest. But you could also continue to work on your smartphone and collaborate with other students in that way.

Julie: Is that live today?

Emilie: So the mobile version is not alive today, but it’s coming soon. The schools we’ve subscribed already on Zoe, they’ll get access to it and will be able to try it out and tell us what they think. And it’ll be completely in sync with the virtual reality app. So if you’ve build an experience inside the virtual reality software, then you can easily take it on your phone and then back to VR. So these are things we think are important to also — in terms of hardware — being as cross-platform as it can be when relevant. You don’t get the same experience on mobile, but we’re used to getting from one hardware to the other. And it depends on what you’re working and when.

Julie: The education piece behind teaching three dimensions and being immersed in a 360 environment. Can you speak to a little bit of the actions that can take place, and what the potential of working in a three dimensional environment is like? And I’m referring to– I’m looking at an article actually about you guys — I think it was released through Qualcomm, actually — just looking at a screenshot that you have. And I think this is also really important that people understand when you can grab from a distance or when you can transport or when doing some of these actions that make you feel more immersed in the spaces. Do you have a particular section in your class or instructional that you talk about these different interactions a little bit more?

Emilie: We as a team, we are interaction designers, so we built this whole Zoe system around interaction, what we call interaction design. So in Zoe, when you’re in 3D, there’s multiple things you can do. You can — and that’s valid for any 3D VR tool as well — but you can walk around, you can move around, you can grab objects. And what’s really neat is you can– you’re doing an art class or a 3D modelling class, you can build all your environment and then you can start setting up behaviors with all your objects. So let’s say that you’re creating — I don’t know — an experience around farming. Then maybe you created a shovel and you created a tree and you built — I don’t know — a water bucket or whatever you need for your experience, then you can start adding behaviors to those. And that’s what Zoe does well is you can really be like in real life, you’re just there in your garden that you just created yourself. You can walk around, you can pick up the objects and you can add behaviors to them. So you can say — I don’t know — if I grab this water bucket, an instruction comes up and says, “Oh, please, water plant in that.” So you can really create like a training session. And it’s very, very interesting to do it directly within a virtual reality headset. Like it changed a lot, being in that 3D space. And then the other aspect that I think is really key is being able to connect with other people from anywhere in the world. So you can have someone in India working with someone here, in the same 3D space and just talking to each other as if we’re all together there and being creative.

Julie: And I think that’s key, being in the same space with somebody else, that’s the collaborative piece right there, of being able to communicate and work on something in real time and have all of the creator tools at their fingertips to be able to design, mold, envision, and use that technology to see what they want to create. One of the things that I would like — if you can — is maybe just give us a rollout of — if you’ve got an education system listening — what would first, second, third steps be of engaging with you. How does it– what are the steps to be onboarded into your program, and how do you take off with a client?

Emilie: The onboarding, it’s go to Zoe.com. That’s the first thing to do. We have one– there’s just one signup form in there, where we ask jut some questions about if there is already VR in your school, what your goals are — if you have any — if you know already what you want to do, and just like ask little questions that help us out. And then after that, we just contact the schools and have discussions around how we can be of help. Talking with districts as well, on how to best integrate with a program, how we can help with hardware, what setup is recommended depending on what type of class you’re doing. So that’s one aspect of it. And then the other thing that should be launched — probably in a week or two — is for just individual students or individual teachers that are not linked to a full school district. You’ll be able to just sign up directly on the website and then get access to a free version of the platform, so you can get to try around them, look at it, and see what it does.

Julie: That’s really great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Emilie. Is there anything else that you would like to close off with, about Zoe or apelab? We know that we can find you and Zoe.com, but maybe if you could leave the last tidbit of learning for our listeners, that would be great.

Emilie: Yes, for sure. I mean, I think now’s a great time to engage with these new technologies and be more creative. And I know everyone’s stuck at home, I know it’s difficult. Everyone has so many things to do and get their their heads around. And so hopefully we can provide some interesting or fun and new learning materials for you to work with. And maybe one piece of info is that we’re until like June-July, everything that we offer is going to be discounted for the schools or teachers that have their schools closed. So that could be also a good opportunity to try them and come in now and explore a little bit.

Julie: Thank you so much. Thank you, Emilie, for joining me today on the XR for Learning podcast. There’s so many different ways that we need to change the way that we learn and we teach. Thanks again for joining us today to tell us about your programs. Then please come back again and give us some updates, and let us know how your platform takes off in the education systems. We’d love to hear more.

Emilie: Thank you, Julie.

Julie: Thanks, Emilie.

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