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Daniel Heinen ’18 demonstrates how his app uses a QR code to create a 3D image on his tablet.

Freshman innovates 3D science app


Daniel headshotDaniel Heinen ’18 is poised to change the way students study science through an educational mobile application he created for smart phones and tablet devices.

Using augmented reality technology, “This app allows students to scan an image with a smart phone or tablet camera and use it for a tracking base. This then allows them to see detailed three-dimensional models on the screen that appear to be part of the real world,” he explained.  

Bored over the winter break, Heinen, a biology major from Little Falls, N.Y., decided to experiment with some ideas he had for an app that would help him study human anatomy. 

“Growing up, I had a hard time visualizing things. I’m used to playing around with computers, and I was playing around with 3D models – virtual reality. I started using an oculus rift virtual reality headset, but those are expensive, and not everyone can afford one. I tried a cheaper version, but it was still too bulky and too expensive.”

He approached biology professor Dr. Sarah Herrick with his idea. “She thought it was really cool, but it still bugged me that it was a bulky headset, and it wouldn’t work for students because not everyone has one. I wracked my brain and thought, ‘Everyone has a cell phone, and I can do something with that.’”

He continued, “What if we could superimpose anatomical models over something in the real world like over a sheet of paper, and kids can take home those pieces of paper and study them? In anatomy class, you spend a lot of time in the lab with models. They’re expensive, and not everyone can afford them.”

Heinen turned to the Internet, and found an online community of people who create 3D models and 3D software. Using this open source technology, he constructed his app.

Through the use of augmented reality technology, his app translates various Quick Response (QR) codes into animated, 3D “movie” models that are superimposed over the “real world.” These images may be viewed from multiple angles, and students can zoom in for greater detail.

Using the app, students would point their phone at a QR code printed on a homework paper the professor provides. “And then they would see whatever the professor wanted them to see,” said Heinen.

“Let’s say we’re talking about how DNA unzips. Most professors will explain it by drawing it on the board. Well, it’s hard to understand what’s happening,” he continued. “You could see, in real time, a 3D model that shows what’s happening. You could play it back from different angles and look at it until you get it.”

Next spring, Heinen plans bring this application to the classroom in a beta trial.

Heinen said another company created a demonstration with augmented reality and anatomy.

“But, comparing it to mine, it was a body – that’s it. You could not go in-depth. It was just a 3D body and skeleton, and they never went anywhere with it,” Heinen said. “There is so much more to it. The software is out there, but no one has built on it yet.”

He continued, “You know, I actually did a little research into the company who does something like this around here. They do something with labels where you can see the fruit in your drink, using your phone. That’s cool, but it doesn’t really help anybody.”

Not in it for any possible financial gains, Heinen aims to use this project to help others learn by creating a free, open source and innovative digital learning platform.

“MCLA is a small school and obviously can’t buy 3D models for every student. Using this technology, hopefully I can allow MCLA to have a really diverse anatomy lab.”