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Meet the Canadian Who Wants to Make the Virtual Classroom a Reality

Josh Maldonado dreams of a world where students get transported to ancient Rome and inside the human body by way of a VR headset.
June 9, 2015, 4:50pm

Josh Maldonado runs a cool demo at SVVR. Photo courtesy of Discovr.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Shrinking people down small enough so they can travel through the human circulatory system is no longer just for sci-fi films from the 60s or half-baked Archer episodes based on said sci-fi films. One Toronto man is trying to make the virtual classroom a reality, and has started with a tour of your circulatory system: Instead of reading a textbook or watching a PowerPoint slideshow, you and your guide have to dodge the blood cells while swimming through the arteries. When you take off the virtual-reality goggles, you find yourself still seated in your classroom.

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But there's more than just biology in the virtual world. History, geography, and the sciences all have potential for immersive education. Studying ancient Rome would be a hell of a lot more interesting if you could go there and explore it for yourself—talk to some of the locals, walk through the Coliseum, check out a ludus. Virtual reality, thought to be dead after it failed in the hands of 90s technology, is back. And this time it could change education for the better.

Josh Maldonado's September 2014 final practicum for his radio and television arts media program at Ryerson University was an educational VR program. The thesis project, named Vessels VR, was a guided tour of the circulatory system.

Maldonado, who is the first in his family to attend university, comes from a television production background. But in February, he quit his job and flew down to San Francisco alone to take part in a VR accelerator program. Although he admits the start was shaky, he says that being surrounded by other people with the same vision for VR helped him realize the vast potential for education in the medium.

"I started roadmapping this idea of creating a narrative in virtual reality, at the time Oculus had stated it was intended mainly for games," said the 23-year-old. "But I think myself, and other people were already thinking of how it could be used to tell stories in a different way."

The biology experience, which was inspired by the cartoon The Magic School Bus, became the first example of educational experiences that could be created by Discovr, Maldonado's VR company.

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"We didn't know anything about producing VR at that time. But we had three months to figure it out," he said. "So I just spent like 14 hours a day learning how to develop this stuff, building the product while learning the technology."

Read on Motherboard: What Are Computers Doing to Our Brains?

Aside from more curriculum-focused concepts, Maldonado would like to explore areas such as brain-training games (like Lumosity) and occupational training programs.

His initial goal was to get a system set up for every classroom in Ontario in an attempt to fix an education system he deems to be outdated and broken. But after a San Francisco–based venture capital firm picked up his company, he began to see the potential to get one in classrooms across the globe.

"The best learning experiences are experiences that are emotionally compelling. And I feel like virtual reality in itself as a medium, regardless of if it's for entertainment or for education, has a sledgehammer of emotional impact because it puts you inside the subject matter," he said.

Rothenberg Ventures, a self-described "millennial venture firm" in Silicon Valley, picked up Discovr as the only Canadian company for the River VR and AR accelerator. Rothenberg brings founders together, invests money in their projects, and provides mentoring services alongside the networking needed to help these companies grow. Discovr was was joined by 12 other companies from around the world, including FOVE, the world's first eye-tracking VR headset.

Pitching your company is different than pitching practicum. Photo courtesy of Discovr.

Tipatat Chennavasin, creative director of River, says that he distinctly remembers when he first heard of Maldonado's work on Vessels VR.

"I just remember reading that in an article and being like, 'Wow, this a company to watch,'" he said. "It was really exciting when they applied to River and I had already known about them.

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"I felt like at the forefront of education, was Discovr."

Maldonado is young to the industry, but his age may benefit him as VR continues to grab attention around the world—most recently, HTC, Google, and Apple have announced their involvement in the industry.

"I was probably a decade younger than most of the people at River," he said. "Just [the] least developed in terms of my own personal experience, a lot of these guys have intense computer science backgrounds. They've worked at studios like DreamWorks, you know what I mean? We have ex- Call of Duty developers. And I'm just a kid who basically graduated from a [little-known] university in Ontario, Canada."

But Maldonado's journey was not without struggles. With no equipment, co-founder, a team, or even the knowledge of the other companies, Maldonado felt that he arrived with nothing in hand.

"It was like learning how to swim by being tossed in the ocean," he said.

Once in California, Maldonado was left with the task of building up a team again.

"I went to schools and I found recent grads that I think are undervalued by other people," he said. "I think those types of people are perfect for what we want to do."

Maldonado and Jazmin Cano, Discovr's lead technical artist. Photo courtesy of Discovr.

Growing up in a technology-oriented generation makes for entrepreneurs who understand the real-life potential of VR, especially after the failed wave of VR in the 90s.

Chennavasin thinks that minds like Maldonado's and his team, who are unaffected by the past failure, are needed to push the boundaries of VR.

"To have people who are able to think without those constraints, I think those are the people who are really going to take it to the next level," he said.

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