Augmented Reality

Immersive Education: AR Comes of Age


Despite all the headlines and conference coverage of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for education over the last year, the technology is still gaining speed — residing at that sweet spot in the hype cycle where, when you place headsets on people and gently guide them to turn around to gain a full view, they tend to gasp and say, "Oh, wow." So imagine how your students would respond if, in that next geography lesson, instead of handing them a flat map of Peru, you pass out pre-loaded smartphones to each table along with a $15 Google Cardboard and ask them to pull up a walking tour that places them in Machu Picchu.

"Seeing is believing," said Colin Messenger, a senior market analyst with a focus on education at FutureSource Consulting. Even if the viewing lasts just two minutes with each student, he added, "that's long enough" for the experience to stick.

However, anybody who has watched the education segment for any length of time also knows that the initial "cool" factor isn't enough to sustain the market. Last year's NMC/CoSN Horizon Report on K-12 education gave VR two to three years to hit the tipping point. As a recent FutureSource report noted, a big question is whether this new technology can be integrated deeply enough into the curriculum and help achieve specific learning outcomes in order to drive mainstream adoption.

Virtual Results with Staying Power

What will that take? User pull is one component, suggested FutureSource. Teachers need to be clamoring; otherwise, it'll continue to be a product in search of a market. Practically speaking, if VR and AR require "onsite demonstrations" to make sales, the channel that typically sells into education will struggle to maintain margins for these kinds of products. What they want to identify is reoccurring revenue. It will be like the early days of classroom computing, when schools could barely justify purchasing laptops for teachers. Only when large purchase orders were on the table for outfitting whole classrooms or grades did the K–12 market suddenly command real attention among device makers, forcing pricing down.

Textbook publishers will be "very prominent" for bringing education content forward, said Chris McIntyre-Brown, associate director of professional equipment for FutureSource. "There are a lot of subtle nuances to how it rolls out in schools." Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have joined up with Google in its Expedition work, and Pearson is also working with Microsoft to create applications for "mixed reality" content that will run on the Redmond company's HoloLens.

Augmenting Reality

AR in education shows significant promise. In fact, currently, it far exceeds VR for student content creation because, aside from a smartphone and the right kind of software, there are no special gadgets required to make it work.

Aurasma is the big name here "because it's free and easy to use," said Davidson. The AR company's platform allows users to create augmented reality that links to images in books and magazines (making it a darling of marketers who want to "engage" potential customers in their products). To experience the AR, you hold your phone camera over the image or a QR code and watch to see what happens.

Davidson has seen applications where teachers have worked with students to add interactivity to books they're reading. They take a video of themselves, and then when another student or a parent runs the app, the student appears on the page to explain something. Or schools have used the software to add interactivity to their yearbooks. "Out of the cover of the book comes the yearbook staff, and the yearbook teacher is saying, 'Hey this is the yearbook staff, and we hope you really like it,' then music plays and you walk through the hallways of the school."

What are VR and AR?

When Discovery Education's Hall Davidson speaks about VR and AR at education conferences, he defines VR as computer-generated reality that puts the viewer in a place that can be real or unreal — "real, meaning you're in the Louvre, or unreal, meaning you're on an imaginary space station outside Saturn." AR is when a layer is placed "on top of reality as an augmentation of reality." He points to the use of AR in NFL games on TV. "There's not really a yellow line that goes across the field showing the first down marker, but it enhances your viewing. It makes it more understandable and adds information that helps you learn that game."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.