Imperial bringing in budget holograms to teach students

Suffice to say, it's not quite Tupac or Freddie Mercury

Students in their twenties sit in a lecture hall in front of open laptops. Photo by Shutterstock

Higher education has become a commercial market as students paying extortionate tuition fees demand more bang for their buck – so Imperial College London has decided to throw some holograms at them.

In a bid to prove to undergrads that it’s just as “with it” as the money-sucking corporate entities that wheel out holographic-style versions of much-loved, long-dead artists for concerts (and the Tory party conference), the Brit university is offering virtual lecturers.

That, or it's preparing for a post-Brexit situation in which internationally minded boffins would rather up sticks than face the UK Home Office's hostile environment.

Imperial showed off its new tech, which will be reserved for the business school, at an event last night. Guest speakers delivering their talks remotely were from as far afield as LA, New York and, er, London.

But the university couldn’t be seen to be splashing too much of the students’ cash around on frivolous PR stunts new teaching aids, so the flickering images aren’t created with the commonly used – but fairly costly – Pepper’s Ghost effect.

"The problem with Pepper's Ghost is that it can be intricate to set up and can cost about £150,000 to run an event," David Lefevre, director of Imperial’s EdTech Lab, told the Beeb.

Instead, it is using kit from “telepresence” firm Arht Media. This projects a video of the lecturer on a glass screen, with software running on a backdrop behind it to give an illusion of depth.

On the other end, the lecturer needs to sit in a special studio for filming, in front of a black backdrop and being lit from both sides – Imperial has access to two studios, one in LA and one in Toronto, and a portable filming kit.

Lefevre said the system was affordable because it “runs at the low thousands each time” – although he didn’t say how much would be spent shipping the lecturers around to the specialised studios.

He did, however, attempt to justify the decision not to use tried-and-testing video-conferencing software by saying that these ‘holograms’ “have a much greater sense of presence”.

He added that the lecturers will also have a high-definition monitor in front of them so they can point at people and look them in the eye – which is bad news for students who hoped to catch forty winks as their telepresent lecturer droned on.

However, El Reg is pondering whether the next step will be students beaming holograms of themselves attending lectures, so they can spend the afternoon in the pub. ®




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