UT Austin Uses Hologram Technology in the Classroom Thanks to an Austin Startup

Photo of Recourse production, courtesy of UT Austin

The old saying is out of hardship and adversity comes innovation.

Just take a look at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business and its use of a hologram application called Recourse to beam a professor into the classroom during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The application is the brainchild of Contextual Content Group, a new startup headed up by serial entrepreneur Jim Spencer. He sold his last venture, Newsy, an early mobile and streaming video online news service, for $35 million to E.W. Scripps Company in 2013. Before that, Spencer served as vice president at Ask Jeeves, general manager of news and information programming at AOL, and executive director of strategic partnerships at NBC.

Jim Spencer, courtesy photo

Spencer moved to Austin a few years ago and he has been teaching a class on business journalism

at UT and working on his next startup.

“COVID greatly accelerated remote working and distance learning and it pushed everything forward,” Spencer said.

Earlier this year, Spencer formed Contextual Content Group, which now has four employees. Its first project is Recourse, the holographic educational application. They pivoted the company and got the project up and running in 90 days, Spencer said. The 3-D immersive video combines in-person and online teaching.

“Probably the most rewarding thing about this is that it is an inspiration to be solving a real problem with a real customer,” Spencer said.

UT McCombs School of Business hired Contextual Content Group to make its classrooms safe for both professors and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. UT wanted to go beyond video and bring something really engaging and innovative to students, Spencer said.

At the end of August, UT kicked off the fall semester with fewer students on campus because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic More than 75 percent of the seats in classes are offered online with only five percent offered fully in person, according to UT. The rest of the classes are offered through hybrid courses that mix online and in-person elements.

The benefits of using Recourse in the classroom are that it keeps the professor safe in an enhanced teaching setting, according to UT. It also greatly enhances the student learning experience.

“We knew we could make the digital experience better,” Joe Stephens, senior assistant dean, and director of working professional and executive MBA programs said in a news release.

Recourse is being produced at IC2 Institute at UT. The professor is in a studio with a green screen and his full-body image is captured by multiple cameras. Then the 3-D holographic image is beamed into a UT classroom for socially distanced students to watch in person and to students off-campus via Zoom.

A producer is in the studio to handle all aspects of the broadcast, Spencer said. The professor doesn’t have to learn anything about technology. He needs to only focus on his lessons and the students, Spencer said.

“What you want the professors to focus on their passion and what they’re paid to do is to teach,” Spencer said. “It’s what they love to do and want they want to do.”

The professor also has three 65-inch high-resolution monitors facing him projecting images of the students in the classroom and at home. He can interact with them in real-time and answer questions live – just like a classroom.

Recourse is currently being used in accounting professor Steve Limberg’s Executive MBA class.

“This is an authentic experience because I can see all the gestures and the nuances that students are expressing, whether it be raising a hand or nodding, and as a result, it really is very much like being right here in the classroom,” Limberg said in a news statement.

Recourse delivers high-bandwidth video with high-quality audio with little or no latency in the experience, Spencer said. It really enables the students to engage with the professor as if they were present in the same classroom, he said.

UT’s McCombs School of Business is using the technology to teach a fall 2020 executive MBA accounting class but plans to roll it out to other classrooms in the future. The response from students has been positive, according to UT.

In addition to Recourse, Contextual Content Group plans to roll out other applications, Spencer said. Its next step will be to build its next product using natural language processing and artificial intelligence to create an on-demand immersive video experience, Spencer said.