Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

Pune engineer brings VR into classrooms, promises to change education

Akshay Rathod’s GuruVR is working with 28 institutes in and around Pune. Students are using it to study subjects such as quantum physics and devices like robotic arms.

puneGuru VR can make a subject tactile, enabling students to see and touch the material and concepts that are being taught in classrooms. (Express Photo)

At the India Mobile Congress 2022 in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, a young student named Khushi from Uttar Pradesh’s Dankur village told Prime Minister Narendra Modi about her trip to space. “I saw the entire solar system clearly before my eyes. I watched the rings of Saturn and, then, I landed on Mars. I decided to look back and I saw the sun looming. It all seemed so real,” she said.

Khushi is one of the thousands of students across India who have strapped on the virtual reality (VR) headsets with which Pune-based startup FireBirdVR is aiming to change how education is imparted and received in the country, especially in remote towns and villages, and major universities such as MIT World Peace University in Pune. This disruptive technology is called Guru VR, which is trying to make the country think of VR in sectors apart from gaming.

How VR comes into the picture

The Industrial Training Institute, a government organisation, has introduced a new subject called Advanced Industrial Robotics. Students are learning about devices such as robotic arms but do not have access to the million-dollar machines. “This is where GuruVR comes into the picture,” says Akshay Rathod, the founder-CEO of FireBirdVR.


Wearing headsets, the students navigate their way through a virtual classroom and enter one where the lecturer demonstrates several robots. In an adjoining room is a robotic arm on a platform behind a panel of levers. The student cranks a lever and the robotic arm responds. They can open it up, see each component, find out what the components can do and they can put it all back again.

Guru VR can make a subject tactile, enabling students to see and touch the material and concepts that are being taught in classrooms. At present, GuruVR is working with 28 institutes in and around Pune. “Once a student puts on a VR headset after signing in with us through their respective institute, they will have access to their curriculum,” says Rathod.

Festive offer

While the virtual reality market is growing in India, parts of India are still inaccessible due to internet connectivity issues. As COVID revealed, students in remote areas were not able to attend classes due to unsteady internet — a reality that can challenge GuruVR as well.

Rathod, however, draws hope from the internet penetration of 5G in India at present. GuruVR, which won the Department of Telecommunications’ 5G hackathon, phase-one, in 2020-21, had worked with Airtel to provide the country’s first VR-enabled 5G classroom in the remote village of Dankur, where Khushi lives.


‘In engineering college, I realised there is something called practicals’

GuruVR has, initially, been launched for engineering students where subjects such as wave-particle duality are a challenge for many students. GuruVR has a module where a student can perform an experiment where they can see how light rays act as both particles and waves. Unlike a video demonstration of the concept, in VR, a student is actually involved in the physics. They can feel the light, even touch it as it changes from wave to particle.

There is a personal story behind Rathod’s deep belief in the advantages of practical education. Rathod is from Latur where his entire education was based on the common Indian method of studying, rote learning. It was when he joined Vidyalankar Institute of Technology in Mumbai to study engineering that Rathod realised that “there is something called practical hands-on learning”.

He did not know how to perform experiments while all the Mumbai students were able to do it. “Our college environment was good so I was able to find my way through. But I did wonder, ‘What if I knew this earlier?’” says Rathod. “This is the infrastructure problem for our country. We do not focus on practical learning enough,” he adds.


GuruVR became his “soul” project—one that is driven by a sense of mission rather than profit. “Learning through experience and hands-on experience makes it easy for teachers to teach and students to learn,” he says.

‘Not here to replace teachers’

GuruVR rolled out a few months ago after a pilot with the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). It was also a finalist at the META and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITy) accelerator programme this year.

Its initiatives, such as GuruVR Metaversity, connect students, teachers, universities and organisations in a Metaverse space. With GuruVR libraries, students can access VR learning experiences relevant to the curriculum and beyond, just like book libraries.

“We are not here to replace teachers. It is after classroom teaching that students can get in touch with us for our headsets and access the Guru VR library. This is like a conventional library, but in VR, where a student can learn a chapter again,” says Rathod. This can be through live lectures that GuruVR has developed with digital human professors.

FireBirdVR, which began in 2015, has made its mark through another property, XRetail, which allows brands and stores to provide an immersive online shopping experience to customers. High in demand with overseas clients, XRetail ensures steady profits for the startup.


GuruVR has received grants from META’s Accelerator programme, among others, but the company is largely self-funded. “We need the right kind of investment from people who have long-term vision. We are trying to build a future here. We want to create impact,” says Rathod.

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 10:41 IST
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