Marjorie Zielke wants to bring artificial intelligence to the classroom through virtual reality.
Zielke, the director of UT Dallas’ Center for Simulation and Synthetic Humans, won the top prize at Tech Titans’ 5G Grand Challenge. The North Texas technology association put out a nationwide call for entrepreneurs designing 5G-enabled solutions earlier this summer.
Zielke’s proposed creation, the Emergent Virtual Teacher Platform (EVTP), uses sensor capture, Internet of Things (IoT) technology, and speed aspects of 5G to deliver virtual teachers in virtual reality (VR) and holograms, according to a news release.
“Our goal is to eventually create stand-alone, life-like holograms of virtual teachers.” Zielke said in a statement. “We see a future society of synthetic and real humans working together.”
Contenders from all around the country virtually pitched judges from major tech companies Shark Tank-style. About half of of those entries came from outside Texas, according to Tech Titans. Finalists that made the cut went on to a day of celebrity judging that included Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO of AT&T Consumer; Charlotte Jones, Dallas Cowboys Chief Brand Officer; and Mark Cuban.
With the 5G Challenge award, Zielke is eligible for a total $20,000 award from AT&T, Cisco, Nokia, and Ericsson.
The UTD researcher’s project has “great potential for delivering the socio-emotional connection missing from current distance education experiences by deploying virtual teachers in educational or home settings and in a variety of languages with specific skills sets,” according to Tech Titans.
Zielke, who has been at UTD for 15 years and established the Center for Simulation and Synthetic Humans at UTD, says her research has focused on 5G.
It was the COVID-19 pandemic that clarified and amplified the “need for virtual teachers and a platform to create them,” she said. “The gaps are very apparent, with school districts scrambling for solutions and parents becoming full-time teachers. Students with special needs have been particularly challenged.”
The virtual teachers in Zielke’s EVTP program could have “huge social impact, closing the physical divide of operating in a virtual world,” according to Tech Titans. Those capabilities could be used for formal education, certificate programs, and lifelong training.
Zielke’s research looks at “capturing unique data through sensors and IoT design,” as well as fusing that data into “interactive human models and delivering the data quickly and securely through VR.”
Per Tech Titans, the Challenge judges “were impressed by Dr. Zielke’s wisdom and creativity and are excited to support her research.”
Celebrity judge Charlotte Jones noted “that the Dallas Cowboys work to create and deliver a virtual experience for those who do not interact face-to-face with the team, a broad swathe of their fan base.” According to the celebrity judge, it’s “essential purpose has a lot of applications.”
Jones also noted the social-emotional component of the platform: “The capacity to provide an empathic, virtual teacher is really interesting,” she said.
Mark Cuban commented on the technology’s potential to provide access to virtual teachers for students attending disadvantaged schools.
AT&T’s Thaddeus Arroyo said Zielke’s program hit all of the pillars of the 5G competition: “It addresses a need and has the potential for significant societal impact.”
For Zielke’s part, the researcher said being selected for the 5G Grand Challenge was a huge honor. “It’s all about having a passion and sticking with it,” she said.
Tech Titan’s Innovation Collider, which launched this year’s Challenge, plans to repeat a version of the contest in the future. Zielke will be recognized during the Tech Titans Awards on Oct. 23, organizers said.
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