Written by Soledad Lalla for US Ignite

The Smart Gigabit Communities program encourages civic leaders to use advanced networking and data-driven strategies to solve real-world problems. A star example of this work, Mike Cuales, the founder of LEVR Studios LLC, created a project that uses 360 Virtual Reality in a rural education setting. This VR solution puts students in rural areas in touch with STEM professionals and new STEM experiences, and gives them access to educational resources that will help them excel. 

How is the VR 360 STEM Project Revolutionizing the Way We Look At Education?

In North Carolina there are 80 rural counties, out of a total of 100, with an average population count of about 250 people per square mile. This puts North Carolina second behind only Texas in its percentage of students in rural areas. The problem Mike identified was the opportunity and wealth gap between rural and urban schools. While students in wealthy, urban areas have access to advanced scientific equipment, STEM professionals, and the opportunity to learn in a laboratory environment, many students in rural and low income areas aren’t able to afford these educational benefits.

Here’s how introducing the VR 360 STEM project introduces new opportunities in an innovative, and virtual way. The VR 360 project places students in a lab where they can be fully immersed in the setting and listen and watch as STEM professionals conduct experiments and explain the process every step of the way. With the VR 360 experience you’re able to see everything around you as you move your head as if you’re actually there, and in conjunction with 3D audio, the sounds you hear move with the location of the speaker, whether they’re in front of you, behind you, or standing on your side. As an example, students in a remote classroom were able to step into a NC State University neuroscience laboratory and witness neurons firing off from an old rat brain during the dissection process. In another demonstration, students in rural North Carolina connected live to an ant lab located in Raleigh.

An important factor in ensuring the viability of this revolutionary project is making sure that there is a high-speed, low-latency wired broadband connection available. Broadcasting 360-degree video requires a minimum throughput of 65 megabits per second. Without that  sustained, high-bandwidth connection, the virtual reality experience is literally impossible.

Mike is increasingly expanding his VR STEM efforts across North Carolina. Recently, he partnered with the NC Museum of Art to distribute a VR Conservation Lab experience to rural schools. That project won a Gold Award at the Southeastern Museum Conference. The next step for furthering the success of this project will be purchasing 30 VR headsets for ongoing use, and continuing to advocate for the implementation of high speed,  low-latency broadband network infrastructure.