The worst part of high school? Most kids might say having to read The Scarlet Letter, or puberty. (I enjoyed both, thank you very much.) But arguably the most boring aspect was memorizing the periodic table–and all its damn elements, symbols, and atomic numbers. Now one Los Angeles company plans to spice up the periodic table, Hollywood-style.
Today augmented-reality startup Daqri unveiled Elements 4D, a set of interactive blocks that aims to help students learn the properties of hydrogen and oxygen in a more visual, educational, and entertaining way. Rather than offering a flat page of elements in a chemistry textbook, Elements 4D brings the periodic table to life through augmented reality.
Elements 4D combines physical and digital experiences. The actual product is a set of six wooden blocks, each engraved with periodic table symbols. Hold a tablet in front of the blocks and watch them transform into their digital augmented reality. On screen, the blocks appear as transparent cubes, with relevant information in plain view (atomic number, mass, and so forth), as well as a representation of the elements’ physical properties.
The most clever and fun part of the service is that these element blocks can be combined, enabling students to witness chemical reactions in real time. For example, a student can bring a “hydrogen” block together with an “oxygen” block, and when they touch, in the augmented reality iPad view these two elements magically combine to form water–you can even see it sloshing around inside the digital cube.
Certainly, it’s a novel approach to teaching kids the periodic table. But as with any new whiz-bang technology, especially in the field of augmented reality, the question now is whether it’s more than a gimmicky concept–and whether it’ll actually help students grasp the periodic table better and more efficiently than traditional approaches. On a practical level, it’s slightly unclear how kids will play with the element blocks while holding a tablet (the video demo shows two hands futzing with the cubes, so who is holding the iPad?). And not to get too eggheaded here, but shouldn’t you need two hydrogen blocks and an oxygen block in order to form water? (The video demo requires just one of each block.) And how will Daqri students understand mercury and its dense properties? The cool part of learning about that element was being challenged by my chemistry teacher to pick up a jar of mercury, and with my prepubescent bravado going full steam, trying to lift it up casually–only to discover it was far more difficult than my puny, freckled freshman-year arms had expected. In augmented reality, unfortunately, that mass won’t be evident to students.
Still, Elements 4D is no doubt a refreshing approach to learning the periodic table. And given Daqri’s extensive work in the past several years–on augmented-realty projects with the Smithsonian and Lego, for example–it’s likely the company will work out many of these kinks for Elements 4D. In fact, while Daqri recently raised a $15 million Series A round–and is backed by Most Creative People in Business honoree D.A. Wallach and Generation Fluxer Troy Carter–the company is introducing the product on Kickstarter, where it seeks to raise $50,000 for the project as it gains feedback from the public.
[Images Courtesy of Daqri]