UNICEF Innovation Fund Graduate: Veative Labs
Developing accessible, interactive virtual reality educational learning materials
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see portfolio member, Veative Labs, graduate. They’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better, strengthening their business model, and gearing up to take their solution to market. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open source community.
Veative Labs develops interactive virtual reality educational learning materials and has an extensive library of 500+ modules of high quality content.
Throughout the course of the investment period, Veative Labs worked to open source parts of our library of VR educational content as well as making it available via WebVR, increasing accessibility and reducing costs of using the technology.
Over the past year, we have matured as a company in many ways. I can say that much of this has had to do with our involvement with the Fund, and their patience (and sometimes warranted lack of patience) in helping us grow. We are essentially a band of educators and technical experts, trying to integrate virtual reality to traditional education. Unlike a lot of smaller, leaner startups, we have a larger workforce with which to work with; however, a startup is a startup, and growing pains hit us all.
As mentioned, Veative is about interactive VR for education. We write, design and create all of the content ourselves. This is a big task, but we have been able to do this. However, two things we had not previously developed through our company were WebVR and Open Source technology solutions. Developing WebVR content presented an interesting challenge, yet we were able to produce something that could be accessible in a browser, while still being interactive and retaining some data of student performance, including but not limited to, assessment scores, gender, usage data and type of device used.
WebVR is intriguing as it can allow learners in resource-poor areas, who may not be able to buy a VR headset, to access the content we have created using any browser-enabled device (PC, tablet, phone). As teachers, this is an attractive thing to do as it can open up opportunities for more learners to benefit from what we do. However, there is a distinct benefit pertaining to children with disabilities which we hadn’t identified at the beginning.
Our core belief was that VR provided a good and unique way to learn difficult, hard-to-visualize topics or concepts.
This is true, but we failed to envision the needs of every student out there and came to realize that some students with disabilities could not physically wear a VR headset. In addition, some are reluctant to wear the VR headset, or have a severe unease in a virtual environment. As educators ourselves, it's not enough to say, “Sorry, I don’t have anything for you.” In this way, WebVR has become a solid option to ensure that everyone has a chance to view and interact with the content. It might not be quite the same, but returning results to an instructor still happens, and the learning continues. That’s important.
Making what we do Open Source allows a teacher to say, “Ok, you seem to understand Osmosis better. Now I want you to design and create a learning module better than what you saw from Veative.” This now attends to higher order thinking skills and critical thinking, which is a level that is hard for teachers and students alike to get to. That is now available to them, for free. A student or teacher can take what we have made and change the way the content is shown/arranged (e.g the assessment questions) without having to build any software and make the lessons plans unique. This creates more options for teachers, and for schools.
We faced a number of challenges along the way which were exacerbated by our failure to properly address parts of the project with the attention they needed, until quite late in the process. Since we were making 12 modules in WebVR, which required a major shift from our Unity platform to AFrame, we delegated more time to that migration and addressed our open source repository (GitHub) and code testing much later. We underestimated the time and effort required, which of course we were warned about by the Fund team. Lesson learned! There is a good reason why they are with you along the way, but if you don’t take advantage of the resources they suggest, then you might find yourself in a bind.
Our goal has been, and will continue to be, to positively contribute to education in every country. We know that we have a strong and useful product as it is made by teachers, for teachers, with the right technology at the right time. We have done our proof of concept in about two dozen countries, in various languages with online and offline capabilities. Research is now prevalent with respect to the positive effect of immersive learning on education, and we are starting to partner with some large hardware companies, and others, to scale our solution.
Working with the UNICEF Innovation Fund
This journey has been a valuable one for Veative because it taught us some necessary lessons along the way, gave us some new elements to take to educators the world over, and made us humble in the areas we needed.
Apart from this, we learned a lot about the business management aspects we were weak in, and how to improve our project management capabilities. In the last few months, we have taken on some projects with some industry players, and we have gotten off to a better start with them, knowing that clear communication, even in a 30 minute call each week, works wonders in keeping everyone on the same page. For that, we can truly be thankful for the Fund team who patiently worked with us on this project and helped us to become the company we needed to be.
About the UNICEF Innovation Fund:
UNICEF’s Innovation Fund invests up to $100k in early stage, open-source, emerging technology digital public goods with the potential to impact children on a global scale. It also provides product and technology assistance, support with business growth, access to a network of experts and partners to allow for scale and growth. The investments can go either to UNICEF Country Offices or to private sector companies in UNICEF programme countries.