At the cutting edge of educational technology are two exciting new technologies, AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality). Both have a place in the future of education and the world. For day to day use, AR is the one to keep your eye on. But, let’s start with a brief look at what these new technology acronyms really mean.
Virtual Reality or VR is where the user is fully immersed in a digital world. Today that means a headset completely covering both eyes providing depth to the environment (known as parallax) and the ability to turn the head and look around within that environment. Some of the more expensive and cutting edge VR have controllers that allow the user to interact more easily with this digital environment. The purpose being to make the user feel fully immersed in this digital illusion created by code. In education the first wave of applications are used primarily for exposing children to an environment that would be too expensive or even impossible to take a class to in reality. Things like taking a tour of the International Space Station or riding on camel’s back past the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
Augmented Reality or AR on the other hand is using the same type of technology to provide an overlay to the user’s existing environment. While in VR the object is to immerse someone completely in a synthetic environment, AR seeks to add information to the existing environment around the user. There are already some great examples of the power of this technology. Ever see an App on a phone that translates street signs in a foreign country to English when you look at it on the screen? That’s AR. Google Expeditions started as VR, but then added AR when it made sense to do so. Someone at Google HQ realized having students immersed in a full headset to explore the atoms in a molecule isn’t as useful as making the molecule appear in the middle of a table. Same level of exploration, but the student can now still see and communicate with their teachers/classmates.
So what will the future of these technologies hold? My prediction is that VR will have a niche place in the future, but AR is what most people will use day to day. This Christmas I received a gift that provides a perfect analogy for this distinction, bone conduction headphones. I have wanted a set to try out ever since I heard about the technology. They provide a way for a person to listen to something without having your ears covered (thus blocking out the current environment). In my early IT days I always wanted to block everything else out, server rooms can be noisy so being able to hear clearly depends upon covering your ears. Also, if your mind needs to be focused on an important task having everything else fade away becomes a huge advantage. However, I found that this would often isolate me when using them around people I was spending time with. If I wanted a little background music for myself, it came at the price of blocking out everything/everyone else around me. These new headphones rest on my cheekbone and provide a vibration that goes directly to the inner ear. I spent the next few days wearing these new headphones. New tech often feels like magic and this was no different. No one else could hear them and yet I could still hear everything else going on around me with perfect clarity. It instantly reminded me of AR, adding something valuable to your existing environment without taking away anything.
Education will continue to see adoption of these two technologies into curriculums and classrooms in the years to come. Another tool of the mind that allows students and teachers to take in and process information faster. It’s one thing to look at pictures or models of the International Space Station, it’s quite another to feel like you are looking around from inside of it. Just like it is one experience to draw a topographical map, it is quite a different experience to watch one drawn in real time when you push some sand around in Montgomery School’s new AR sandbox. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.