Giving students ‘creative superpowers’ in a virtual classroom

(Credit: Zoe)

At the beginning of this story back in 2012, they were three dreamers hoping to push the boundaries of immersive storytelling with interactive design.

Emilie Joly, Sylvain Joly and Maria Beltran, students enrolled in the Geneva-based HEAD’s masters in media design, were interested in exploring how to tell stories using new technologies and approaches.

They decided to build their own 3D immersive experiences, a whole pipeline of software tools in the backend that they used themselves. During the last year of their degree, they founded a company, apelab. Its mission: to democratise content creation & education technology using 3D and augmented reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR).

Eight years later, the three co-founders still work at apelab, but today they have offices in Los Angeles as well Geneva and have just launched a new educational project with schools in the United States and Switzerland, based on their creatively empowering tool, Zoe. Emilie Joly connects with us from L.A to share the exciting development of this new adventure.

Building stories. Apelab started as a studio focused on creating interactive stories, and developing tools to offer both playful and accessible experiences. When the team decided to expand their work in the United States, they had the idea of focusing on the entertainment business. In 2018, a beta of their software tools called SpatialStories was made available as a test.

“At one point we decided to put them out there to see if they would be useful for others. It was at a time where everyone in Hollywood was doing a lot of VR. But we ended up with 70 per cent of teachers, schools and universities being interested in our work. So it made us think about where we should go.”

They went to Brooklyn and New York for three months at the Rlab accelerator, dedicated to immersive technologies.

“We worked a lot on just basically what the teachers needed. I met teachers who were using our software, saying how their kids had been using it to build some amazing things. We hadn’t realized that even kids could actually use this. So drilling down a bit more, we built the new version as an educational platform.”

And so, apelab created the Zoe trademark.

Zoe comes to Switzerland. Zoe is a learning platform allowing students to build their own interactive immersive experiences and to give them “superpowers”, as the apelab team imagines it. The teachers are able to create virtual classrooms and have the students come in and do things from wherever they are in the world. An important and exciting alternative in the midst of the Covid-crisis. Today, Zoe is coming to children in Switzerland, with a inspiring name: #2030.

“We really wanted to do a project with secondary classrooms in Switzerland. And they're the trickiest ones, because they don't necessarily use a lot of new technologies within the classroom.”

Funded by the Gerbert Rüf Foundation and their Digital Education Pioneer program and supported by DartLabs, the project will allow Swiss students in seventh to ninth grade to develop their own vision of what the future could be in 2030. Each classroom chooses a subject within that frame: planet 2030, work 2030 or school 2030. Switzerland will focus on school and imagine what education should look like in 10 years.

Why this is important. As education systems start to embrace digital technologies, Joly finds there is a need to empower students to become creators and develop new skills.

“I think the main thing for us, the reason we're doing this and we're working with education is to give students the ability to create their own learning. And this is what the tools allow you to do.”

If the students have a new idea and want to say something about the world, Zoe will help them craft their vision inside virtual reality. And looking back on their creative journey, #2030 reminds Joly of the importance of early empowerment.

“We started when we were at school. We wanted tools that we didn't have. And so we built them. It also brought us to create our own company and build more confidence. I think it empowers you being able to create things on your own. We want to bring what we've learned and what we've built to teach those kids the same skills. They can be useful for their own future.”

If VR is still pretty niche as an industry, the technology is evolving continuously. The challenges are technical of course, but not only, Joly says.

“The challenges have more to do with giving people equal access to the technology. Working in education, you want people to know, students with low income and schools to have access to it. This is why we work with partners and foundations to help us bring Zoe to the largest possible number, because we want to give learning opportunities everywhere to everyone.”

The first Zoe kick-off program will be launched in November in six schools in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Hopefully, Geneva students will soon be able to join the movement and pave their way to their future.