June 12, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

Dr. David Passig on his virtual reality helmet: It is like the invention of the wheel. It is a paradigm shift – a whole new way of thinking.Dr. David Passig is someone who could never being accused of living in the past. Living in the future, however, is a charge to which he would plead guilty.

Passig is a ‘futurist’ whose teaching and research involves concepts – like virtual reality – used to only talked about in science fiction novels. But while his methods may seem exotic, his goals are very real: finding better ways of helping people – particularly children – learn.

As the chairman of the Graduate Program of Educational Technology at the School of Education at Bar-Ilan University, Passig’s work focuses on using virtual reality and other multimedia for the cause of education. And he may have found a way to make us all smarter.

Passig last week unveiled a virtual reality device that he says can actually raise one’s IQ.

“This has great breakthrough potential,” says Passig, a wiry man with a wide smile and knitted kippa who looks younger than his age. “It addresses cognitive skills that can’t be addressed in other ways,” he told ISRAEL21c.

His excitement is palpable when he talks about the possibilities for helping people through the use of virtual reality.

“It is like the invention of the wheel. It is a paradigm shift – a whole new way of thinking. Not just a different way of thinking, but a new way. Using it shifts our way of conceiving of and perceiving the world,” he said.

Over the past several years, working with a team of graduate students, Passig has been experimenting with virtual reality learning techniques. He has used the devices on hearing impaired children, who traditionally perform poorly on IQ tests. When fitted with virtual reality helmets that completely cover their eyes, the children are taken out of their physical surroundings and placed in a ‘virtual room.’ There they’re asked to perform various exercises for 10 to 20 minutes – one study involved conducting spatial rotation, and in another, they played a Tetris-like block game.

After doing the exercises daily, over a period of months, the children’s measured IQ rose by as much as 20 percent – significantly better than control groups doing similar exercises in two-dimensional formats.

In one of the studies, 16 children with normal hearing took part in the study as a second control group, in order to establish whether deaf children really are at a disadvantage in terms of their flexible thinking. As a result of the virtual reality exercises, the gap between the experimental group and the control group of children narrowed – but there was enough improvement in the hearing children to suggest that virtual reality exercises can boost IQ in the non-impaired as well.

This has been backed up in new research conducted by another of Passig’s graduate students to be released shortly, in which children without any impairments were also able to improve their cognition. A new round of research, he says is beginning now with Down’s Syndrome children.

Passig is the only person in Israel with a PhD in future studies – which he completed at the University of Minnesota, after earning his B.A. and his M.A. in education there. Following his studies in the US, he returned to Israel in 1994 where he founded the Virtual Reality and Multimedia laboratory in Bar Ilan University, the first in Israel whose purpose is pursuing research in education and virtual reality.

While there are other virtual reality laboratories in the field of education – for example, at the University of North Carolina and University of Washington, Passig says that he is doing something unique.

“Most of the other centers are using virtual reality as a teaching aid,” he says. “But I want to take it to another level. There is something in this technology that we don’t yet understand, there is potential here and we are just scratching its surface. We are the only laboratory of this kind in the work developing technology to enhance thinking skills.”

Passig isn’t an easy person to track down. When he isn’t teaching advanced courses in future education, future technologies, systems theories, futures methodologies, multimedia and Virtual Reality, or supervising a large group of M.A. and PhD students whom he hopes will continue to push the envelope and use their imaginations to develop futuristic technologies, he’s making television, radio and other appearances.

ISRAEL21c caught up with him when he was appearing on a panel at the Microsoft Israel Digital City – a major exhibition of the latest gadgets and technologies featuring two days of lectures and panel discussions. Passig was in his element – appearing on a panel where the technology of the future was being discussed.

With two of his four children in the audience, he engaged in a lively dialogue about what lies ahead in the coming years – everything from flying cars to computer integrated home entertainment systems to the next step in transportation after the Segway.

For Passig and his research, today is already tomorrow.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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