‘Time’ magazine has voted Google Glass one of 2012’s best inventions, amid claims that it will make augmented reality (AR) a part of everyday life. Project Glass aims to ‘put your computer on your head’ and, by means of a small monitor in the spectacle frames, enable users to take photos, video chat, access maps and other information – even look up the football scores - while they go about their day. Google believes that this is the near future, and it is not alone. Driven by the rapid development and adoption of smartphones, AR is set to become far more mainstream.
Much of the impetus for the development of AR comes from the military, medical and marketing sectors, where generous budgets can often be found to throw at the development of new technologies offering a fast payback. There are some really impressive (if scary) examples already in use in warzones and in clinical settings. And, as Steve Boneham at Jisc Netskills, says: “The demos offered by marketers are really jaw-dropping. But there’s still a lot of development work to be done. At the moment the user experience often disappoints.”
“I’m keen to see the technology take us far beyond
‘augmented’ reality to ‘enhanced’ experience. In HE, I
think AR needs to support social learning and the
construction of meaning, rather than simply
transmitting content. We need to do more than simply
adding a few bells and whistles.”
Consultant Trainer, Jisc Netskills
Earlier this autumn, Matt Ramirez from Mimas gave a presentation at Internet Librarian International about Scarlet, a Jisc-funded pilot exploring the use of AR to enhance the experience of learners working with Special Collections materials. The aim was to give students the same opportunity to see the original, often fragile Medieval texts, but to make possible additional experiences, such as the apparent ability to turn pages, the option to zoom into fine detail not visible to the naked eye, and the facility to hear portions of the text spoken aloud.
It is a project that offers unique, fresh opportunities for teachers and learners to get up close and personal with texts that need to be seen in the original, but are too fragile and precious to be handled.
AR also offers real opportunities in vocational training where, for example, a trainee hairdresser could access a quick bit of advice or a longer demonstration via a QR reader, without needing to wait for the tutor to become available. Or, take the experience of plumbing students at Kendal College, in the South Lakes. Its Living LeARning programme uses AR to allow the students to access materials via mobile wherever they want it.
Funded through Jisc Advance’s FE and Skills Resources and Development programme, the Kendal College project allows students to work more visually and flexibly (in classrooms, workshops and at work). Staff are also learning to use the AR tools alongside learners, improving their technology skills and allowing them more time in the practical sessions to focus on key areas. The college says the AR initiative is saving it both time and cost by providing it with materials that are easy to update.
At the University of Exeter, 'Unlocking the Hidden Curriculum' has created a campus-based AR environment that enables smartphone users to access 2d graphics and multimedia content about the rich variety of flora and fauna on site. It effectively turns the campus into a ‘living laboratory’, overlaying location specific information on the viewing screen, fed by the phone’s built-in camera.
In fact, many of the best examples of AR in action so far focus on 2d and 3d modelling, and the urban landscape, bringing to life aspects of architecture, geography and history by providing resources that can be overlaid on the physical landscape. The Scarlet blog provides links to whet your appetite.
Early in 2011, Jisc published the Techwatch Report: Augmented Reality for Smartphones, written by Ben Butchart at EDINA, explaining the state of the AR art at that time, and some of the tools available for developers. It describes how AR can lead to the creation of novel, exciting learning experiences, even with no prior knowledge of programming, and it is still a useful introduction to the subject.
But it also introduced a note or two of caution that still apply today. The technology is very, very young, with resulting limitations – for example, the various apps currently used to develop content are not interoperable, and also require users to jump through too many hoops to access layers of content that could have been provided more neatly via other means.
Mark Power, at the Jisc Observatory, says that, for the marketers currently driving the development of AR, this is not likely to be a priority. He commented: “AR isn’t quite there, yet. But as the standard web browser becomes more powerful, we won’t need to download apps to develop and access content, and the process will become more seamless. At that point, much more will become possible – and I think we’ll see big developments in this direction in the next year.”
The challenge will be for educators to take the technology and use it to develop content that genuinely adds a new dimension to learning – and makes a learning experience that is, as one commentator put it, “‘neat’ and not 'meh'”.
As a result of the Scarlet project, Mimas is now an accredited developer for Junaio, the development tool it chose for the project. Matt Ramirez said: “We have lots of ideas about how to make this work, and course tutors will have many more. I am very interested in partnering with institutions so we can see how these ideas can be put into practice.
”We think the potential for AR is huge, and we are keen to train people to use the tools.”
Augmented reality example
How to use:
If you don’t have a QR code scanner…
Download one from your app store
Scan the QR code (on the right) to download the RSC app
Open the app and hold your device’s camera over the TV on this page to make it come to life and find out more about AR
A video to show how this works...