Imagine visiting a virtual reality simulation of historic locations and holding virtual models of real artifacts in your hands. Dr. Jeffrey Pomerantz, a 2003 graduate of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, is making that possible for students of all ages. 

The former professor and self-proclaimed recovering academic now spends his time working on his business, Proximal Design Labs, a VR passion project he developed with his colleagues in late 2020. 

“It was very much a pandemic project that got some legs,” he says. “No one was more surprised than we were that it actually worked.”

ProximalVR is a no-code tool for building interactive virtual reality learning experiences. The tool, which is still under development, will allow educators to create 3D VR simulations as easily as building a slide deck, and students can view them on nearly any device. The tool will allow educators in grades K-12, higher education, technical education and more to create interactive VR simulations using simple drop-down menus. 

“The idea is to create a library of interactive learning content on really narrow topics that could slot into a lot of different lessons,” says Pomerantz, who hopes to license his company’s work to larger educational companies. 

Keeping Students Engaged

As a professor and researcher for more than two decades, Pomerantz created instructional design for online teaching and learning, and developed instructional materials and entire curricula for online programs. 

While working as a senior researcher with EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, he took on the broadest study to date of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in postsecondary education. 

He served as principal investigator for the “Campus of the Future” project and decided to reach out to a former student who was working for a large gaming studio to get his insight. Pomerantz wondered if it would be possible to create instructional materials for students with the kind of engagement that commercial games do so well.

“The idea is we could create interactives to teach a particular learning objective with more hooks that would be much more engaging and look better,” says Pomerantz. “It’s all about trying to teach the user to do a thing in a constructed space and keep them moving forward in a meaningful way.”

Those discussions inspired Pomerantz and his colleagues to create Proximal to fill a gap in the online learning world.

“It was something that we had been talking about pre-pandemic and then the bottom fell out of the world,” he said. “So we thought, ‘Well, we’re stuck at home anyway. Let’s launch a small business and see if we can make it work when everybody is remote from the classroom.’ And the rest is history.”

Pomerantz says keeping in touch with his former student who works for a gaming company was very helpful as he built his business. He encourages Syracuse students to keep in touch with their professors, too, because of how beneficial those relationships can be.

“Talk to your professors, not just in class. Go to their office hours, have a chat, hang out,” he says. “Every once in a while there’s a professor or a student that you really hit it off with and you keep in touch over time. Those relationships are hugely valuable. You never know where connections will lead.”