Remember those stressful school days, when a paper was due the next day, and you hadn’t started it yet? That’s how I was feeling. I love to do public speaking about new technologies. But with this week’s looming presentation at FETC (Florida Educational Technology Conference), I was coming up empty.
Then I started to review some of my favorite educational Augmented Reality (AR) apps, like Osmo, Star Chart, HoloAnatomy…and it became clear relatively quickly that AR has a variety of meanings and uses, depending on the sophistication of the underlying hardware. I decided to create a chart that organizes my favorite apps by subject categories and AR technologies, and see what patterns emerge.
If we travel down memory lane and think about how AR has evolved over the past few years, the technological progress will become obvious. I’m guessing that the vast majority of classroom educators associate AR with early implementations using target technology, like Crayola Color Alive or DAQRI’s Anatomy app. In these types of products, your phone’s camera is the star. It recognizes a pattern, like a UPC code, and then projects an appropriate 3D image on top of the matching 2D graphic. This approach is fairly limited by today’s standards, and can be frustrating when your hand gets tired and you lose the “match.” On the plus side, it works with every smart phone.
AR apps that use object recognition (column two) are definitely more interesting. Again, your camera is key, but this time it’s looking for a specific object, not just a patterned target. This type of AR can more easily incorporate real world objects, like a guitar or cellular structure, which most educators prefer. They believe, as I do, that combining physical with digital experiences, makes for a more memorable and understandable experience for kids. (Tip of the hat to developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget.)
But it is the column “Advanced Sensors” where things get really interesting. With Star Chart (and Pokemon Go), the phone’s GPS and accelerometer are put to good use and gather real world information that the camera alone cannot. And the addition of two new cameras in Tango phones, used for motion tracking and depth sensing, allow for much more sophisticated AR. Now your device not only knows where you are, but it knows the location of surrounding objects. It also knows the placement and dimensions of the wall and floor, making it possible to accurately integrate virtual and real objects, in real time, within a room. Someday, when Pokemon can be played on a Tango phone, Bulbasaur will no longer be floating, but rather, will make himself comfortable on the nearest park bench.
How do these experiences differ from the last column in the chart, Mixed Reality? Mixed Reality, Merged Reality, Cinematic Reality (whatever you choose to call it), is simply AR but in a headset. There are additional distinctions, e.g., virtual objects realistically interact with actual objects, but surprisingly little agreement on definitions.
We are obviously in the early stages of educational AR, but one thing is certain. The technology is evolving, from gimmicky and glitzy to truly helpful, with longer term engagement and true ROI. I can’t wait.