Mobile Apps | Feature

Augmented Reality Apps Transform Class Time

Earlier this year, Google sparked a global conversation in the future of augmented reality with its forward-looking Project Glass, a pair of specially designed eyeglasses that promises to embed the most up-to-the-minute features of a smartphone, like traffic and weather patterns, into everyday vision.

Heralded as a technology of the future, many expect that it will be a while before augmented reality sees widespread adoption, especially in education where the annual K-12 Horizon Report, which analyzes trends in education technology, puts its projected time to adoption in the classroom at four to five years from now.

But students at the Calgary Science School in Alberta, Canada have been experimenting with augmented reality on iPads for close to a year now, using apps that leverage the tablet’s real-time camera display to design projects that add new layers of understanding to the world around them.

Introducing Augmented Reality
Simply put, augmented reality is the layering of information--like photos and animations--over a real-world environment, typically on a computer, smartphone, or television screen. (In everyday life, think of the World Record line that scrolled across the pool during the recent Summer Olympics or the virtual first down line that appears on the field in televised football games.)

Dan McWilliam, who taught Calgary Science’s seventh grade iPad pilot last year, first discovered the technology when he saw a video of an app that could scan ordinary baseball cards to reveal a video of the player and wondered if there were similar apps that could be used in the classroom.

With some research, he discovered Junaio and Layar, two browsers for mobile devices that provide users with additional information about real-world environments using image-recognition and GPS technology. His big find, however, was Aurasma, an app that can recognize certain real life objects, called "Auras," when a smartphone or tablet’s camera is passed over them and automatically display a given piece of audio, video, or 3D animation. The app lets users create their own Auras to, for example, link a 3D computer model with a printed, 2D image.

McWilliam introduced Aurasma to his class during a Year in Review project in December, intending to show students that they were living history. “The inquiry question was what events from 2011 will become history and which will be forgotten?” McWilliam said. "Students in groups chose an event that they thought would be remembered in 50 years time, and then using their iPads they then created a short iMovie, a short descriptive documentary about what the event was and why they thought it would be remembered."

A second part of the assignment required students to create a poster about their chosen event that could be displayed in the school’s hallway. Using Aurasma, they linked their poster to the video, so that "visitors to our hallway would not only get the surface, analog data, but then using a device, they could hold it up and access the digital content," McWilliam said. "Like a QR code but without the QR."

The novelty of the technology, along with its prominent placement, ended up bringing a larger audience to the students' projects. "It was really neat to see parents, staff members, and other students being invited by students saying, 'Mom and dad, you have to come see our school.'" McWilliam recalled. "And then they were looking at each other’s work as well."

Extending the Technology
The students’ creativity spurred McWilliam to experiment more with the technology. In another assignment, he had his class design a monument to represent a historically significant event in Canadian history. Using Google SketchUp, students created their monuments as a 3D design and then geofixed them to their school’s playground using the tool SightSpace 3D. Afterward, students were able to virtually tour their monument on the iPad, adding perspective.

McWilliam also tried a similar approach in his elective woodshop class, where students used SightSpace to place SketchUp models of custom woodworking creations into their classroom and then walked around with their iPads to get a 3D view. Students could even place their models next to the finished product.

"It adds a layer of authenticity," McWilliam said. "If they’re making a small scale model on their desk out of Playdough, it doesn’t feel as authentic and it doesn’t get as much student engagement. But when they feel like they’re building something that is literally 50 feet tall and will have an authentic audience and will be sitting in a field, all of a sudden their student engagement is that much higher."

This year, in his new role as an instructional leader, McWilliam will introduce String, another augmented reality app, to fourth grade students.

The app’s  Web site features printable image targets that, when scanned with an iPad, activate specific, although limited, interactions. “The best [image target] for classes is a drawing program where students use their device and draw a 3D model,” said McWilliam. "Although it’s not very interactive, it’s very visually appealing. It’s a good way to introduce people to augmented reality."

As part of the iPad pilot last year, McWilliam and his colleagues blogged extensively about the use of augmented reality their school, which has already attracted some big attention. "Apple sent a camera crew to our school in June to do a short documentary piece on our use of iPads and laptops with students," said Scott Petronech, the school's assistant principal. "They were impressed with the augmented reality work that Dan has been doing."

As students became more comfortable with the apps, McWilliam said they even began to look for applications of the technology even when they weren't required, a phenomenon he chalks up to the fact that new ground is still being broken in augmented reality.

"When it’s something new that even adults haven’t done before, I think they come out of the student role, and they feel like they become authentic researchers," McWilliam said. "It helps them break out of the student mold to feel like they’re doing something valuable and authentic in the real world."