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3D virtual rooms from Ann Arbor startup provide safe meeting places

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Jesse Mason's online physics lectures are radically different from other faculty members' at Schoolcraft College in Livonia: He has transformed the pandemic learning experience into a virtual three-dimensional classroom that's a lot like an interactive video game.

Mason uses new technology from a small Ann Arbor-based startup called Saganworks to create the experience. Saganworks introduced the tool in May.

"My approach to teaching is pretty dynamic, and I knew going through the online thing was going to be kind of dull, drab, cold," Mason said. "And so this is what I came up with." 

Students enter his classroom at any time by logging into a website. They find a three-dimensional room with lecture videos on subjects such as light and magnetism sitting on a shelf against a wall. Another shelf holds assignments, quizzes and answer keys. Students can access every video and file by clicking on them.

In a corner furnished with a couch and coffee table, they can click for a video conference with Mason.  

Mason said a half-dozen faculty members at Schoolcraft have asked him to build virtual classrooms for them.

Saganworks was founded in 2017 after CEO Donald Hicks sold the sold LLamasoft Inc., a multimillion-dollar supply-chain software company. Hicks founded Saganworks because he wanted to create an alternative for people consuming knowledge and memories in two dimensions.

"Life doesn’t happen in 2D; your experiences and memory shouldn’t either," goes the company line.

Users can add files, photos, videos, music, and more to a virtual room known as a Sagan. Sagans can be populated with furniture and content. Sagans can be public or by invitation only.

As the coronavirus pandemic has canceled or rescheduled events and gatherings, executives at Saganworks said Sagans can be used as an alternative for get-togethers that would otherwise not be safe to attend. 

Sample introductions are free and let participants access others' Sagans and build basic ones for themselves; full access with unlimited Sagans and more storage space is available to individuals for $59.99 per year.

"The reality is it's a space that you can customize to your liking with your content of choice... with the current situations and climate, it's created a need to feel like you're experiencing things again," said Casey Hyde, vice president of sales and marketing at Saganworks. 

Hyde said Saganworks' 600 users have so far used the technology for virtual art galleries, trade shows, retail and e-commerce shops, workout classes, personal portfolios, educational purposes and even memorials for family members, like Mason did for his family. 

In addition to creating a Sagan as a classroom, Mason used the online tool to build a tribute room for his grandfather-in-law, who died from COVID-19 in April. 

Jesse Mason used Saganworks, a Michigan tech company, to create a virtual memorial for his grandfather-in-law who died from COVID-19 in April.

The memorial is decorated blue chairs and couches and red rugs. Photos and video stills of his grandfather-in-law cover most of the walls. Click on a wooden boat on a side table, and a video launches of his grandfather with family members singing "Happy Birthday" to him.

"We couldn't have a funeral and it's so not-human," Mason said. "It's a really nice way to memorialize someone... and my kids will have access to this for the rest of their lives, all these pictures of their grandpa."

The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn is creating a virtual museum by digitizing assets and artifacts. The museum will highlight entrepreneurial stories and collections under the themes of agriculture, the environment and social transformation, according to a Henry Ford blog post.

"It's a difference between seeing and feeling like you're in an experience as opposed to scrolling through some files," Hyde said. "We see how this tool can be used by everyone... and for people who are lacking that experience, our doors are open, we're ready to see how we can help people."