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VictoryXR’s CEO, Steve Grubbs, Sits Down With Father & Son, Craig & Dieter Frehlich To Discuss Education In The Metaverse, VR, VXRLabs & Much More

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR Show. I’m Steve Grubbs, your host. And you can see that today we are on the University of Iowa campus, at least their digital twin version. We have two guests with us today, the first time we’ve done a father-son combo. So welcome Craig Frehlich and Dieter Frehlich. 

So, Craig, I’m going to go ahead and start with you. You have been involved in virtual reality and education for a very long time. If you could, you know, talking to educators now, talk to us about some of the things that you have learned over the years that would assist educators as they integrate immersive learning into the classroom. 

Craig Frehlich: Yeah, first, thanks for having me on the show. It’s always a delight, Steve, to talk to you and follow the work that you’re doing, which is amazing. I think sometimes educators are looking for a silver bullet when it comes to research and VR, but if they back up from a macro level, there’s tons of research just on what good teaching and learning looks like in the classroom that VR can hang its hat on. 

So here’s one, we know from tons of research studies and books on how we learn best that if you space out practice, so don’t cram in a topic in the first two days that you deliver it, but space it out. Maybe you introduce the topic on a Monday and you allow them practice on Wednesday and Friday. 

So what do we know? We know that that practice that we give the student traditionally has looked like a worksheet. So a paper and pencil, maybe a few questions to get them to sort of pull out information for long -term memory. But if we vary the practice, so instead of just the same old type of modality, worksheet after worksheet, if we vary how they practice and think about and engage in the material, there are studies out there, we call this interoperability, that they’ll remember it better. 

So VR has a huge role to play here because we’ve got this amazing new tool that we can allow students to practice the material that we deliver, but in a varied context. 

And then I’ve learned this from you, Steve. The other thing that makes VR so powerful and worth the effort to adopt is that we already know from research that active learning is far better than passive. So, let’s put kids in a virtual world where they can actively engage in 3D models and assets to get them to think a little bit deeper about content. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s wonderful. So, all right, let’s back up one step. Why should people care what Craig Frehlich thinks? What is your background, and I know it’s extensive, in both education and VR? 

Craig Frehlich: Again, education, as my gray hair tells people, I’ve been at this for about 30 years now, both teaching in the classroom, science, chemistry. Then I shifted to design and design thinking, and I was teaching that. But all along the way, thinking of great tools to immerse kids, to make them more engaged. 

And within the last five years, it’s been a lot of virtual reality. I set up a VR lab at a school just outside of Calgary. Then I moved to Singapore, and I set up another VR lab and a VR program at a school in Singapore. 

Now in Vancouver, rinse, repeat, we’ve got this big VR lab here at the school I’m at in Vancouver. And I wrote a book. The book is called Immersive Learning: A Practical Guide to Virtual Reality Superpowers in Education. And in there, it talks a lot about how teachers should be thinking about and using VR to implement in their curriculum. 

Steve Grubbs: And is that book available on Amazon? 

Craig Frehlich: Yes, it is. Sure is. Yep. 

Steve Grubbs: Would you just give us the title one more time for those that want to search? 

Craig Frehlich: Immersive Learning: A Practical Guide to Virtual Reality Superpowers in Education. 

Steve Grubbs: By Craig Frehlich. 

Craig Frehlich: There you go. 

Steve Grubbs: Perfect. So Dieter, coming to you now. So first of all, for those listening, Dieter in full disclosure has been an intern at VictoryXR this summer. And not just any intern, Dieter has earned accolades from everybody that he’s worked with. 

We like to test people on their skills before we hire them and Dieter scored at the highest level. So because of that, we assigned him to our most challenging intern task over the summer. And that was for our VXRLabs platform to get our avatar system up and running. 

We have some amazing modelers and we have some amazing coders, but we’re a small startup team. And so to the extent that we are fortunate enough to have interns who can work for us and really advance the ball down the field in a substantive way, that’s just a huge blessing for our company. And so Dieter, hats off to you. Everybody on the team wants to continue working with you to the extent that we can. So thank you for that. 

So with that little introduction, talk to us about… So the vision for VXRLabs is to essentially combine three elements. One is the synchronous, multiplayer nature of an entire classroom or a group of people to be able to gather and be instructed. And that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it’s hard. We know it’s hard. The second piece of it are simulators. So, on most synchronous, multiplayer platforms out there, you can’t upload an actual working simulator. 

So most people are used to like, you know, flight simulator. But what about hospital machines operating as simulators or welding machines, carpentry, all of these different things? They’re simulators that if we can give people hands on access, then they can really learn in a hands-on way, in a group environment with an instructor. So that’s pretty powerful. 

But the third piece are our avatars and not just our normal avatars. It’s our AI avatars, conversational avatars, where you can put an instructor or an individual into a room. So whether you just have one student in there or a group, you can have an expert in the room where you can bring back to Live and historical figure. 

So Dieter, you worked on the implementation of our avatar system. Talk to us a little bit about what we hope for with that in this VXRLabs platform. 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, so one of the things you talked about that is so important to VXRLabs is sort of the detail and the quality of the simulations that we’re trying to provide. And one of the challenges that comes along with that is that we need computation power to sort of fuel all of that. 

And at the end of the day, the Quest 2 and the Quest, the products that we’re designing for, they’re wonderful pieces of hardware, but they’re not necessarily as powerful as we might need them or expect them to be. And so one of the challenges that I’ve been kind of dealing with as I was creating the avatar system, was trying to figure out a way that we could allow for detailed customization of the avatars without taking away too much computation power from the simulations that we want to run. 

The idea was to basically be able to add these avatars into the game and allow people to customize them, but we didn’t want to compromise the experience of the existing simulations in VXRLabs. And so that was one of the challenges that I worked through over the summer and came up with some sort of solutions, implementing a lot of open-source pieces of technology to create a way that we could customize the avatars and not compromise the existing experience. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, and it looks great. And one of the topics people always talk about when we’re thinking about virtual reality. And especially the news out of Meta this week that Meta avatars now officially have legs, you know? 

Craig Frehlich: Right.

Steve Grubbs: It’s always sort of a funny deal. And I know that it comes down to really both the computational, the resource management with the chip set and also the tracking. There’s no tracking that we can put in place for legs at this point. 

So at this point, we have decided to…Talk to us a lot, I’ll let you actually explain where we are now and where we would like to go with our avatars as far as their bodily structures. 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, so right now, we’re still working with half body avatars. And the primary motivation behind that decision was again to make sure that we have enough computational resources for the rest of our simulations. We do have full body avatars as something that we’re working on and we’ve got a couple of tricks that we’re hoping to try out and see if we can make that work, because I think that adding that full body experience really increases the immersion in the virtual worlds, and I think that it sort of adds a different level to the way that you interact and the way that you experience all these simulations. So, I’m really hoping that the next couple months we can work out those last few kinks and get full body avatars into the game. 

Craig Frehlich: I want to weigh in, Steve, just from an educator’s perspective on this who studies a lot about how we learn. Additionally, I’ve spent a lot of my career in private schools. And so if we think of avatars as, you know, our identity, a private school has students wear a uniform to downplay their identity in hopes that from a research perspective, that they focus more on the learning than the social aspect. 

So if we think about what’s our primary reason to send a student with an avatar into a learning experience, if it’s to focus in on the learning, then I don’t think legs are necessarily as important or even arms, hands would be. And so, I applaud sort of your approach to this, Dieter and Steve, because I think it downplays something that maybe isn’t quite as important if you’re doing a chemistry lab and that’s how you look. The more important thing that the student should be focusing in on is the act of learning piece. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, the reality is that legs and elbows are mostly window dressing in virtual reality or immersive learning settings. But people want their legs. So we continue to have this debate on how many of our chipset resources we should dedicate to it. 

But Dieter, do you have any thoughts on the issue of leg tracking? Part of it’s a resource issue, but part of it’s a tracking issue. And since we can’t track the legs, then as developers, we have to make some guesses as to how their legs are moving. Is that right? 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, so legs are pretty difficult. I think that Meta’s come up with some pretty smart solutions using a lot of the cameras, and they have access to way more information from the hardware because they’re developing it. But as far as our experience goes, we don’t have trackers in the legs. The only trackers that we’re using are for your hands and on your headset. And for the rest of the body, we’re using inverse kinematics to sort of solve for where the rest of the body should be. So what we’re doing is we’re taking the… 

Steve Grubbs: Inverse what? 

Craig Frehlich: It’s called inverse kinematics. And so normal kinematics is basically saying, “Well, I’ve got my hand and I want to put it here. I need to bend my elbow this way and I need to move my shoulder over here and now my hand’s in this place.” 

Inverse kinematics is the exact opposite of that. It says that “I’ve got my hand, it’s moved to here. How should I translate the rest of my body such that it looks normal and my hand stays in that same position?” And so we can perform inverse kinematics on the headset and on the hands because we have controllers for them. 

But like you alluded to, we don’t have trackers for the feet. And so we have just a sort of guess for where they should go. And so the procedure that I was experimenting with in the XR Labs is called animated locomotion. 

And so basically what we’re doing is we’re taking the direction and the velocity of your character and applying that to an animation that handles figuring out where your legs should be. So it’s just an estimation, but as far as creating that immersive experience goes, it’s still pretty helpful because it gives you a frame of reference for where your legs and your body would be in the virtual world. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, okay. That makes sense. And so, these are issues that we will continue to tackle as we move forward. And talk a little bit, Dieter, staying with you for one more question here. 

What are your thoughts about creating your identity? You know, we’ve initially made the decision that we want students to look like humans. We could allow them to be animals or aliens or robots or whatever. But for the time being, and I don’t know where all this will ultimately go, but we’ve decided, you know, they can be whatever human they want, but they have to be a human. So, do you have any thoughts on that sort of identity, creation, that avatar creation? 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think especially for an educational game where the, you know, if we think of the point of the social experience that we’re trying to create in VXRLabs, well, it’s a human social experience, right? 

It’s focused around education and it’s focused around teaching humans how to engage with all this different science and with all these different aspects of the real world. And so I think that sticking to human avatars in that sense is really helpful because it sort of reminds us of the social environment that we’re creating within VXRLabs. 

Whereas if we were to allow people to take on any avatar they wanted, I think it might create a little bit of a different social atmosphere within the labs, within the simulators. And I don’t know, I think as far as it goes, I’m sure my dad could speak to this. Creating a clean and a nice and an inclusive social environment is really important for effective education. 

The other thing that we alluded to before, even at private schools, students are wearing uniforms, but we all look different. And so it’s still important that you’re able to customize yourself. It’s still important that you’re able to sort of look like yourself and feel comfortable in that environment so that you can just focus on the learning and focus on the education. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, yeah. I also think it’s interesting. There are definitely generational differences in how these things will roll out. Most people in my generation, you’re going to go in there and look like what you look like. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case for Gen Y, Gen Z, whatever. So correct. 

Moving to a different topic, use cases. One of the things that I work really hard at, and it’s not easy, because there’s a lot of guesswork involved. But what are the best use cases for virtual reality? There’s really no reason to spend time in VR to do something you can do easier in the real world. So what are your thoughts on where it really provides value? 

Craig Frehlich; Yeah, there’s a great book that I read by Dr. Carl Kapp, and he basically—the title of the book is Learning in 3D, and he has a quote in there that says that, “If content is king, then context is the kingdom.” And what he means by that is, you know, the superpower of VR is you can take a student anywhere, and by anywhere, according to education, it’s much stickier if it’s contextually relevant to what you’re studying. 

So, for example, I’ve been in your VR experience about To Kill a Mockingbird, where you literally can sit inside the court that Atticus sort of conducted court for in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

How powerful is that to be in that environment, to look around and actually see it firsthand and hear some of the audio clips and sounds and getting the historical background? I think sometimes, again, we have to convince educators that learning has to be a journey, and that journey involves a number of different experiences related to the learning outcomes so that they get this full, big contextual picture. 

It’s like, let’s stop making students novice about the content, let’s give them this rich, experiential journey where we introduce maybe some major themes to something like the novel, then we might give them a few vocabulary questions, which isn’t in VR, but putting them inside a VR experience that’s like what the novel is doing is just, it’s building experts. 

Dieter Frehlich: So if I can just add there, I’d like to say that putting students in that experience also lets them learn in the way that they want to. I think a lot of the times traditional learning is very prescribed. It’s very, we’re going to give students this technique. We’re going to give students this workbook and they’re going to follow it that way. And I think one of the best parts about experiential learning, especially in VR is that we can put students in this environment and let them explore and let them engage with the content in the way that feels most comfortable for them so that they’re going to get the best learning experience for themselves. And so I think that that’s just something that’s really important because nobody learns in the exact same way and experiential learning is really powerful because it lets students learn in the way that they want to. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I think that’s awesome. And going back to your example of the Montgomery County Courthouse and To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the things we’ve not announced yet, I’ll say it right now, we will be rolling out, I think in September, the Montgomery County Courthouse with an AI avatar of Harper Lee, the author. 

So, students will be able to go into the courthouse. We’ve got, I think, 10 stops to get chapter summaries, talk about the meaning of the various chapters. But then students can sit down with Harper Lee and using the AI -configured version of her, have a conversation about her and her book. 

And so, Craig, talk a little bit, if you would about the potential of integrating AI tutors, AI historical figures, AI trade instructors. What do you think is the potential of that? And things that we ought to be thinking about as we develop this. 

Craig Frehlich: Yeah, teaching is hard. There’s a lot of work involved. If you’re a fantastic master teacher, you are wearing so many hats in a day. And one of the biggest hats that you wear as a teacher is providing timely, effective, formative feedback for students. 

And that’s a lot of work. If your classroom is filled with 30 kids and you’re a dedicated teacher, then you’re sitting often one-on-one or in small groups where you’re giving them practice. And as they’re practicing, you’re giving them feedback right away. 

You know, again, in his book, Daniel Pink, it talks about the importance of practice. And then he did a bunch of work with Andre’s Ericsson. And first, there’s practice, but then there’s good practice. And good practice not only means lots of repetitions, but repetitions where someone like a coach is giving you feedback. 

So these AI avatars are saving teachers a plethora of time that they can get back to be more creative in their lesson design because the AI tutor is now taking a role as a coach, giving people feedback, letting you ruminate ideas back and forth. 

And so this is just a game changer for education. And having it be in 3D is so much better than like a 2D chat bot like chat GPT on your computer, because it’s immersive. You’re getting that sense of presence and it just feels more real. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I always like to say if a picture is worth a thousand words, then an immersive 3D environment is worth 10,000 words. And, you know, hopefully the AI can do it in a lot less than 10,000. So, Dieter, talk to me about your thoughts on, you know, what’s the potential for AI avatars? You know, what are some fun and interesting use cases that we ought to be considering? 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, well, I think that from the student’s perspective, one of the biggest things to consider is that I have instant access to feedback and I have access to feedback that’s sort of no strings attached, right? I think a lot of the times, what students have to deal with is that, you know, their teachers, the person that might be grading them, they might have a, you know, interpersonal relationship with their teacher, there might be all sorts of factors going on that make it difficult for a student to truly ask for help or to truly get the feedback that they need or maybe their teacher’s just busy. 

And one of the most powerful things with these AI avatars is it’s going to let students engage with whoever they need to or get that feedback at an instantaneous rate and without worrying about what the consequences of getting that feedback might be. 

So any question that you have, you can just ask it and you’re not going to have to worry about the teacher maybe judging you or the teacher telling you that it’s not necessarily the best question or the teacher impacting your grade from that, right? 

One of the best parts about that is that I, as a student, can just get whatever feedback I need and ask whatever questions I want whenever I need to. And I think that that is truly, truly incredible. So, I think that’s a great question. 

Steve Grubbs: So I appreciate all that, but take me a step further, if you could add to our list of our road map, so we’ve got Thomas Edison and Harper Lee and other historical figures and then we’ve got some instructors with patients for nursing students to interview and learn you know, you make recommendations on solutions for whatever their issue is. What would you add to our roadmap that we ought to be thinking about developing? What characters? What types of instructors? 

Dieter Frehlich: You know, I think that the approach of sort of implementing historical figures has been really powerful, but one thing that could be interesting is to sort of create like a tutor avatar or a coach avatar that you can talk to for a specific purpose, right? 

So maybe we’re doing something on public speaking and you could go to this avatar and you could give your speech to the avatar and afterwards, it would give you feedback about the content that you delivered. I think that that would be something that’s really amazing. Or maybe in a math environment we have an avatar that’s sort of just specific for answering math related questions. 

And while you’re doing your homework, while you’re doing your worksheet or while you’re engaging in some sort of experiential learning, you can go up to this avatar and you can say, “Well, hey, how did derivative work derivatives work again? Can you explain that to me?” And rather than just sort of typing it in your computer and reading it from an article, you’re actually able to get somebody physically in front of you explaining that concept to you. And that that would be something that’s really powerful. 

Steve Grubbs: I love the idea of the speech coach. That’s really interesting. I don’t know that we have pursued that level of programming on how one would develop the speech coach, but I know it’s possible. So I’m actually going to add that to the roadmap. So thank you for that. Craig, what are your thoughts? 

Craig Frehlich: Yeah, I just recently did an article on avatars for my LinkedIn post. And at our school, we’re using the Engage platform with some grade five students because they’re on a unit right now about identity and they’re just exploring their current identity. 

But what we’re going to do is we’re going to get them to brainstorm outside of VR, their future self. So what do they think they’re going to be like in 20 years? Maybe that’s a profession that they’re wanting to explore or a hobby. 

So that would be a neat AI avatar is you go in, you click some buttons and you get to interview your “future self” to see, like do I really want to be a firefighter? Well, give it some parameters and boom, you sit there as maybe a teenager and you interview your future self and you get sort of a sense for maybe what that might look like in the future. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I love that. The whole job shadow piece is a pretty big deal. So let’s start to wrap this up and go into a couple of final questions. Craig, let me start with you. You’ve seen a lot from where all of this immersive learning started, and you probably have some ideas on where it’s going, we’ve got the new Apple headset, and then the Quest 3 comes out in October. And there’s a lot of technology. 

I’ve got thoughts about how much will be in headset and how much will be outside of it. But I’m curious what your thoughts are about the future of where immersive learning is going and where companies like ourselves and the work that you do, where we can all take it? 

Craig Frehlich: Yeah, I can’t wait for what I might call the calculator moment for VR. And by that nowadays in the classroom, the teacher will say, you know, math, science, you name it, “Pull out your calculator. We need to do some computations,” and it’s just a tool that’s ubiquitous to a student, something that they keep in their backpack. 

I envision VR to be the same way where we’re doing something in the classroom, and then the teacher says, “Okay, pull out your VR headset. You put it on, you know, you might pop yourself into a volcano if you’re in some middle school science class, you know, you have to identify igneous or different kinds of intrusive and extrusive lava, etc., and then you might click a button and now you’re in AR and maybe you’re displaying some historical figure, some volcanologist inside the classroom, and everyone has their headsets on still, but now they see the classroom through AR. 

And so just hopping in between these mixed realities just gives this rich, robust learning experience for kids that is just, as from a learning science perspective, it just rockets a kid’s ability to think from a low-level novice to an expert level because we’ve just wrapped them in this learning journey. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah. I love that. Peter, what are your thoughts on where it can all go? 

Dieter Frehlich: Yeah, I think that one of the biggest things that’s going to change is something that you alluded to is how much time we’re going to spend in the headset. I think right now, a lot of the time, people might max out at 20 minutes, half an hour, just because the headsets could be bulky or might be a little bit uncomfortable or might just not be perfectly immersive. 

And I think that as the technology improves, as things get slimmer and more lightweight and more immersive, people are going to be more inclined to spend longer amounts of time in virtual reality. I think that that’s going to also change what we can do. 

Because instead of it just being something that you pop on for an experience, it can be part of the whole learning process. And I think that that would be really awesome. 

Steve Grubbs: Excellent. Well, if you’ve enjoyed this conversation today, please subscribe either on YouTube or one of our podcast channels. I want to thank Craig and Dieter Frehlich for really a fascinating conversation and all they both have done to contribute to the advancement of immersive learning. So thank you both for joining us, and we will talk to everybody next time.