Augmented reality, or AR, involves dynamically superimposing digital annotations on real-world settings to supplement our perceptions and understandings of those settings. The name derives from the notion that the digital data ‘augments’ the ‘reality’ we see around us. With strong support for the development of AR from a number of major technology companies including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, important innovations are now occurring in this area. Along with technologically simpler QR codes, AR is part of a broader phenomenon which Tim O’Reilly has referred to as ‘web meets world’, where the real and the virtual overlap. Note that AR is quite distinct from virtual reality, or VR, which involves a fully digitally simulated experience rather than a layering of digital information over our view of reality. For a fuller discussion of the augmented-virtual continuum, and the differences between AR and VR, see the virtual reality page.
The most sophisticated of today’s AR systems overlay web-based information (such as Wikipedia entries or travel reviews) and social media profiles on an image of the real world, generally on the screen of a mobile phone or other mobile device. These digital annotations can be seen by opening a relevant AR app, which looks through the viewfinder of the camera on the mobile device, and superimposes digital data on the resulting view of the real world. A combination of geographical markers (which rely on GPS and geofencing) and visual markers (which rely on image/object recognition or, at the simplest, scanning of QR codes) may be used to trigger these digital displays. In the future, it is likely that such AR displays will be accessed more often through wearables like augmented reality glasses (such as Google Glass) and even augmented reality contact lenses.
It is increasingly possible for users to input information, interact with virtual objects or creatures, create texts or multimedia artefacts tagged to real-world geographical locations, and engage with other users through AR interfaces. The layering of many people’s comments and artefacts over a given location is sometimes called deep mapping.
The best-known companies working on dedicated AR interfaces include Layar and Wikitude (see the Wikitude images above and below). Google Goggles (for Android) allows identification of some real-world images and objects. This is an area of considerable ongoing experimentation: note that the formerly well-known Junaio app was discontinued in 2015, and the educationally popular Woices was discontinued in 2017.
Because AR involves students learning in real-world environments, it corresponds to contemporary trends in situated and informal learning. Where students co-operate and collaborate on learning trails or games using mobile AR apps in their everyday settings, a social constructivist element is evident. Where students create multimedia artefacts to record, consolidate and share their learning, creativity and digital literacies come to the fore.
Educational companies which create learning trails, treasure hunts and games, and which increasingly offer educators and students user-friendly tools to create their own versions of these, include ARIS Games and FreshAiR in the US, and LDR and Rockmoon in Singapore. The Harvard University HARP (‘Handheld Augmented Reality Project’) and the MASELTOV Project in Europe have carried out interesting work in this area, with the latter resulting in the production of a language learning app.
More general software, without a specific educational focus, has also become popular in education as it has become ever easier to use. One of the first tools to become popular with teachers for overlaying digital data or artefacts on worksheets or books, which became visible once they were scanned with a smartphone or tablet, was Aurasma, later renamed HP Reveal, and now discontinued. Other similar tools include Augment, BlippAR and Zappar. For examples of AR apps created by tertiary design students using Augment, see: Augmented Reality Projects from Next Generation Innovators. There is now also growing educational interest in commercial pervasive games enabled by AR, as detailed on the gaming page of this website.
For a recent overview of the promise of AR for education, work and other areas of life, you might like to check out some of the following videos. In many ways, videos demonstrate AR better than still images because they can capture its dynamic, changing aspects:
- Knowledge Transfer: The Promise of Augmented Reality (Gaia Dempsey, 2015)
- Microsoft Hololens Partner Spotlight with Case Western Reserve University (Código, 2015)
- A New Way of Seeing the World (Epson Moverio, 2016)
- AR, VR, MR: Making Sense of the Magic Leap and the Future of Reality (Wired, 2016; note that AR and MR are similar concepts)
- Prosthetic Reality (CNet, 2017)
- Augmented Reality for Education (Chris Beyerle, 2020)
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