3D holograms of long-dead scientists are being used to inspire a new generation of Irish women to pursue careers in male-dominated fields of science and technology.
The Inspiring Women project, which is still in a pilot phase, uses actors to present the stories of pioneering Irish women scientists to schoolchildren in an interactive augmented reality (AR) setting.
Using a process called volumetric capture, the actors appear as three-dimensional holograms that it is hoped will be more engaging and inspiring to a teen audience than traditional teaching aids.
Sky News was present when the technology was first introduced to a class of children.
Pupils from Stepaside ETSS (Educate Together Secondary School) in Dublin gathered around iPhones and iPads to watch actors playing Ellen Hutchins, Ireland’s first female botanist, and doctor Dorothy Stopford Price tell their stories.
Seen on mobile devices, the actors appeared as if they were physically present in the classroom, and the students posed for photos and videos alongside them. The interactivity seemed to please the class a lot.
“I think it’s amazing,” said 15-year-old Luanne van der Walt. “I think with technology, it’s great. It looks so real, it’s interesting and it immediately grabs your attention.
“You want to know how far you can play with it, what else it can do. It’s eye-catching, it’s creative, and it’s really impressive to see the technology, how it’s actually done. »
Noa Nerin, 13, who is interested in biology, said “a lot of women aren’t really interested in science, so seeing women achieve it really helps, because you think if they can do it , You can do it too “.
The two women featured were important historical figures in Irish science. During her groundbreaking career in botany, Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) identified hundreds of species, while Dorothy Stopford Price (1890-1954), described by The Lancet as “tremendous”, helped eliminate childhood tuberculosis in Ireland with the introduction of the BCG vaccine.
“Back when they were alive and they achieved these things, it was a lot harder,” Noa said. “So knowing that helps too. Seeing them is really cool, it’s like woah, people can actually manage to bring people back from the past that way. »
The technology used in the project comes from an Irish tech start-up called Volograms. Based in Dublin, it claims to have the world’s first app that allows users to produce the volumetric holograms themselves using just a smartphone.
Usually the process is expensive and time-consuming, performed in a professional green-screen studio, with dozens of cameras. But the Volograms app, called Volu, allows a user to perform volumetric capture using a standard smartphone camera. Although the person is captured from a single angle, the app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to add texture and 3D shape.
The resulting vologram can be dropped into videos or overlaid on any background, while users can experiment with size and filters.
Vologram’s commercial director, Nicolas Moreno de Palma, told Sky News that “these are 3D representations of real humans that are captured in the same way that we currently capture video or images”.
“So you record something on camera and then turn it into a 3D object, which can live in any 3D world like video games, augmented reality, virtual reality, what people call our days the metaverse. »
The Inspiring Women project is funded by the Learnovate research and innovation center. Its director Nessa McEniff said the “project breaks the boundaries of space and time by merging history, theater and computing”.
“Future graduates need a similar fluency across disciplines linking the arts, humanities, and social sciences to science, technology, engineering, and math. »
The gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is well documented internationally. In Ireland, which bills itself as one of the world’s leading tech hubs, just 25% of the 120,000 people working in STEM fields are women, according to the Central Statistics Office. Women are seriously underrepresented at the senior or managerial level in these areas.
It is hoped that initiatives like Inspiring Women will help address the apparent reluctance of young women to enter STEM fields.
Back at school, Luanne van der Walt stops and says, “It’s no problem that there are so many men. It’s just a problem that there aren’t many women. »