Tech talk: Giving life to textbooks, with Augmented Reality

Updated September 16, 2018

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CEO Navera Waheed eyes to grab her share in $27bn global AR market pie.
CEO Navera Waheed eyes to grab her share in $27bn global AR market pie.

If textbooks walked and talked with 3D video and a voice accompaniment, might they hold your attention better? That’s the bet the founders of Orbit-ed are making, by bringing Augmented Reality (AR) tools into the classroom.

Orbit-ed is an Islamabad-based educational technology (ed-tech) startup trying to re-imagine class lectures the way we know them. How? It uses AR to recreate the school curriculum in a much more interactive format — a smartphone app for 3D visualisation of textbook content in AR.

In case you’re not familiar with it, let me try. AR is an interactive experience of a real-world environment whereby using computer generated imagery, the virtual objects are “augmented”, sometimes across multiple senses including visual and auditory.

Let’s say the kids are learning about the human respiratory system. Instead of books they have a 3D human model right in front of them, showing what’s beneath the skin. You can step inside the organs to see how everything works together to help humans breathe or take out any organ and view its microscopic details.

How exactly do you sign up? You can request for a demo on their website and then partner up your school with the startup. And then their work starts! Using the curriculum, Orbit team will create 3D content in AR which the school will then have access to.

Initiated by techies Navera Waheed and Wajiha Habib, Orbit was started at the end of 2016 at the National University of Sciences and Technology incubation centre.

But let’s get down to business. This tech sounds a bit too fancy for Pakistan where even posh private schools haven’t adopted audio-visual aid, let alone AR. Is there even any interest for this tech here? “We were in talks with Head Start School System but the process was tedious and now it’s nowhere,” CEO Navera says. “We also reached out to the education minister but have gotten no response yet,” she adds.

Then what exactly is the startup even looking at? Well, the global AR market is currently estimated at $27 billion and Navera is hoping to get a share of that. And how does a local startup based out of Islamabad plan to make its mark in a market with big players? For that, Orbit’s strategy seems to be joining accelerators across the globe.

They recently graduated from the Startupbootcamp — the biggest accelerator in Europe — in Netherlands, where the company has built the network to make gains in the local market. “We found the right mentors in our industry who are now helping us make grounds across Europe,” the CEO shares. In addition to Dutch state schools, they are currently in touch with a school network in Spain. “By October, we will have our sales team on the ground in Netherlands — just in time for the local school session to start,” Navera informs.

And just last week, she joined LearnLaunch — an edtech specialist accelerator — in Boston from where she will look to start her journey in the US. “We already have access to around 50 schools in US through LearnLaunch and will try to get maximum on board,” Navera says, adding that “the relative standardisation across public schools in US makes it easier for us to penetrate deeper. In comparison, the European schools have far more freedom to choose their course books which means much more work for our content team.”

And what exactly is the business model? Currently, there is a modest per user subscription price of six euros a year but the team is working on more flexible pricing structures for bulk orders. Whether that’d be a sustainable pricing model is perhaps too early to say given that they are in the market testing stage.

The duo is bootstrapping as of now but has set the target to raise $500,000 in its first round of funding. “This would help us get by for around 18 months with expected revenues upwards of $800,000,” claims Navera.

A sizeable chunk of the global augmented/virtual reality arena is hardware-centric, whereas Orbit relies solely on software developed for a smartphone. And that is exactly what Navera is betting on — ease of access —to help her gain a strong footing in the market.

Moreover, the Pakistan-based tech team gives Orbit a significant cost advantage in terms of both content creation and development.

Only if such technology was available to us back in our time, many perhaps would have very different careers now.

The writer is member of staff:
m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com
Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2018