VR is in the House: The FETC Expo

The US ed-tech conference season kicks off at the start of the year with a strong event, the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC 2017), held each year in Orlando, Florida. FETC tends to set the tone, previewing what’s coming for educational technology in the U.S. for the upcoming year. Having spent considerable time crisscrossing the exhibit hall, I would like to share some key observations, my gleanings from the FETC expo, now in its 37th year.

If FETC is at all a predictive conference, 2017 appears to be the year of VR for education. More than thirteen companies featured high-traffic VR technology experiences in or around the expansive FETC exhibit hall. Here’s a quick look at the competition.

New wrestlers

Every year at FETC, we see some new companies or products secure a solid foothold on the competition mat known as FETC:

Eon Reality. The 3D (now VR) behemoth, Eon Reality, entered the completion with absolute flair. After offering a ground-breaking keynote presentation to kick off the conference, they executed a number of swift moves on the exhibit hall floor, including showcasing their VR iCube cave and their VR content creation tools.

ThingLink VR. The respected ThingLink company has added a significant VR presence to their premium offerings. (Their entry-level offering is free.) Their VR implementation allows educators to embed interaction, movies, call outs, external links, and annotation to existing VR experiences that are ordinarily viewed in a passive manner. A killer move.

InstaVR. In the highly interesting FETC Start-Up Pavilion, InstaVR featured their new web-based tool for creating and publishing user-generated VR content. In a swift technical wrestling move, they also added to their product one-click publishing to all major VR platforms and data collection/analytics features to track how content is being viewed.

Eon iCubeEon Reality featured their iCube and their content creation tools.

Me, too

Of course, a few companies came to the mat with nominal entries, and no real champion to enter the fray. These companies offered a merely dutiful exposure, yielding to the notion of a small VR presence in their booths just to whisper that they belonged in the club—sort of.

Best Buy. The Best Buy offering for its integrated classroom sets of Google Expeditions sat quietly and unassumingly in a corner of their booth, drawing little fanfare and therefore little notice.

HMH. Confirming their alliance with Google, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt touted their value-added offerings that could be coupled with Google Expeditions, namely, HMS-branded VR tours that were accompanied with detailed lesson plans to help the teacher implement VR right in the classroom.

ISS. The Center for the Advancement of Science shyly and apologetically demonstrated some of their international space station experiences, which play passively on a VR medium. But like a ploddingly slow and inexperienced wrestler, their take-down will be easy on the competitive mats of education.

HMHPublishing giant HMH featured their branded VR content (above), while ISS took a step into the VR space (below).


Smart as Paint

Many of the VR exhibitors at FETC, however, were smart as paint. These were formidable wrestlers, revealing new moves, unanticipated techniques worthy of emulation:

Lenovo. Lenovo offered a novel move, demonstrating educational gaming using VR in four easily-accessed stations, while at the same time, using the game as an automated method for collecting sales leads. In another surprise move, the people staffing the booth demonstrated a wonderful level of expertise and people skills. The ‘gentleman’ wrestler, if you will. How interesting. Good traffic.

zSpace. zSpace again stole the day with two impressive feats on the expo mat. First, they managed to co-locate their product in three or four other booths (and several conference sessions). Everywhere I went—there was zSpace. Secondly, like professional wrestlers, they are now touring the country in large buses. In fact, they drove their interactive bus right into the exhibit hall floor and offered an experience extraordinaire to all comers: a chance for groups of customers to play for prizes using their “desktop virtual reality” hardware. Evidently, zSpace now operates four such buses (two trailers and two RVs) crisscrossing the country, each performing two events a day for new and existing customers. The bus idea is not new, but the contest they offered in the bus was novel and invigorating. Again, good traffic followed.

Lenovo 2Lenovo used VR smartly in their booth.

zSpace weighed in as a VR heavyweight at FETC

FETC evidenced other smart and cunning wrestlers, too:

Sensavis. Sensavis played it smart by continuing their U.S. messaging and rebranding their 3D offering in a smart way. Their previous product, called The 3D Classroom, has been rebranded to simply Sensavis. This makes sense, because the nomenclature 3D sounds old school these days, having been effectively replaced by a newcomer to the mat—VR. (See my article about this evolution.) At the same time, Sensavis has reshaped and refocused their mission: “teach, create, activate.” This notion can be translated as better teaching (through visualization), easy content creation, and actively involving students in their own learning. A nice reverse move!

Nearpod. Nearpod was easily the crowd favorite, garnering huge lines and crowds. How did they do it? New moves? New techniques? Bluster and bravado? No, they gave away free VR headgear all day, every day.

Unity. Unity continued to impress by doggedly following their new mission of reaching the education market by being ‘there’ for educators. In education, as in wrestling, persistence matters.

Samsung. Samsung was in the house, but not really. They sacrificed a physical booth presence for numerous conference presentations in surrounding hotels. The non-booth. The booth from afar. The relocated booth. It worked.

Google. Google was also absent from the exhibit hall floor for the first time in years, but not really. They simply sent their minions. Google VR was everywhere: in the expo, in the sessions, in the booths of other companies. Once you’ve conquered the entire world, why not just use your minions to get the job done? Maybe Google is the smartest wrestler of all.

SensavisSensavis continued their FETC presence this year.

NearpodNearpod replaced Google as the VR darling, drawing huge crowds at FETC.

At last year’s FETC, I wrote: “there’s no screeching take off yet for VR yet…just the hard work and heavy lifting of passionate advocates.” But the scene changed entirely in the exhibit hall this year: VR was in the house.—Len Scrogan