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A Quick Practical Guide To Augmented Reality

As technology becomes more accessible, powerful, and versatile, the way we interact with it is changing. We are flooded with stories about how augmented reality (AR) is revolutionizing all kinds of industries relevant to our everyday lives, including: navigation, advertising, and healthcare. Two additional areas at the leading edge of this revolution are gaming and education. At Agents of Discovery, our goal is to integrate these, and use AR to provide educators with a platform that encourages learners to engage, interact, move and play.

This might be a good time to back up for a second. Although it has been growing in leaps and bounds for years and gaining increasing prominence in the investor and developer communities, AR is still often poorly understood. What’s the big deal anyway? Does AR live up to the hype, or is it just another soon-to-be-passé fad bound for the dustbin of technology history? We’ve put together this short blog post to give you the who, what, when, where, and – most importantly – the why on augmented reality.

Photo by David Grandmougin on unsplash
Photo by David Grandmougin on unsplash

What is AR anyway?

If you’re familiar with gaming, you have probably heard about Pokémon Go!, an app which uses augmented reality to allow you to catch virtual Pokémon through your screen. To put it simply, AR uses technology to extend – or “augment” – our physical world and add artificial visual information to it through a device screen. AR enables users to combine their real world surroundings with simulated sounds, texts, and images to enhance their real world experience. Computers usually aren’t as smart as we users (to use a famous acronym highlighted in the recent text from editor John Brockman entitled Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI, a computer is a TOM – a Totally Obedient Moron). However, they can do things we can’t, so geo-location based tracking and a bit of computer vision using math (geometry, matrix calculations and a bit of algebra, to be exact) is used by the software to aid in projecting simulated 3D images on top of the 2D image that is already displayed.

The implications of this seemingly straightforward innovation are enormous. A recent Harvard Business Review guide notes that “…superimposing digital information directly on real objects or environments…allows people to process the physical and digital simultaneously, which improves our ability to rapidly and accurately absorb information, make decisions, and execute required tasks quickly and efficiently.” In medicine, doctors in training can see and interact with a life-like beating heart in a fully immersive educational experience. In manufacturing, production supervisors can review how different materials might look when assembled (without spending time and resources to build a model). In corporate training, employers can create training programs which more efficiently and actively engage learners by inviting them to interact with their environment in new and exciting ways. And on, and on, and on.

So that’s the technical stuff out of the way. Where is AR currently used and who is using it?

Lots of places and lots of people. Let’s break each of these down a bit further.

First, where is AR currently being used? As highlighted earlier, all over the place. To take just one example, Boeing is using it for aerospace manufacturing – specifically for their technicians. It enables their team to see a visual wiring blueprint in real time right in front of their eyes. This helps, as historically technicians have had to get information from a 2D diagram and attempt to place wiring based upon their memory of the diagram. With AR, technicians are able to access a 3D model of wiring protocols and more easily understand what is needed, giving them a significant advantage to help accomplish difficult tasks. 

AR is also commonly used by the military to aid with pressing needs such as medicine and maintenance. As outlined in a recent paper by Columbia University’s Henderson and Feiners, with the help of AR, military professionals are able to better perform tasks and maintenance while they are in the field. Also, consider its applications for neurotechnology in the medical field. Brain Power uses Google Glass with the intention of giving users important tools for improving social skills- a valuable asset for  people on the autism spectrum. Using Brain Power, a person can be given digital coaching on facial expressions, or digital assessments of their own stress and anxiety levels. This medical software has the potential to have a positive impact for people on the spectrum, as well as for health care as a whole.

Clearly, AR can also be used in outdoor and educational settings such as urban greenspaces, parks, school yards, cultural sites, zoos and museums – including AR to provide interactive tours for learners.

Right. So augmented reality is basically the same as virtual reality?

They sound similar, but they are actually very different. While virtual reality replaces the world around you via headset and brings you into a ‘virtual reality’, AR is as simple as overlaying virtual data on top of what your phone camera displays on the screen.

Photo by Laurens Derks on Unsplash
Photo by Laurens Derks on Unsplash

OK, but how is this useful in educational settings without tons of high tech equipment (and the big budgets that accompany them)?

Let’s face it – education can often seem like it is stuck in the past. Let’s consider for a second a fairly recent photo from a “modern” classroom.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Leaving aside a few modern touches, is it really that different from the classroom of decades ago?

Photo credit: "School (one half only)" by MARCZERO1980 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: "School (one half only)" by MARCZERO1980 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Augmented reality is a critical piece in the push to modernize classrooms. Research has demonstrated that by introducing AR, learners are able to achieve higher rates of comprehension and success, and recent studies on the use of AR in educational settings have shown an increase in student engagement and willingness to learn. AR enhances the engagement and long term memory of learners partially as a result of the physical movement and interactions that are paired with the cognitive elements. As Radu found in an analysis of AR, the learner is able to engage with  the concepts, which allows them to gain a better understanding while increasing  their level of motivation. This  article regarding AR in education and training shares the benefits of AR technology in all types of schooling from kindergarten to university.  The article also states that it expects AR to transform educational environments to become more interactive, personalized, enjoyable and productive.

Technology has come a long way in the past decade, with many industries adopting AR. In the future, the use of AR in education has immense potential. Agents of Discovery is committed to remaining at the forefront of this revolution as we build new immersive experiences.