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Purdue Project Tackles AR/VR for Workforce Ed

augmented reality

A prototype system to provide workplace training using augmented reality is under development at Purdue University with support from the National Science Foundation. Photo credit: Jared Pike

Purdue University has received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue development of a prototype that will facilitate workforce education being done through augmented reality and virtual reality.

According to the project leaders, most AR offerings involve complex programming and other specialized skills that companies don't have and can't afford to purchase. "SkillXR," the project under development, will be a platform that allows anybody to create an AR experience. The results are intended to be platform-agnostic and usable on whatever new devices or headsets are popular in the marketplace.

The idea behind SkillXR is twofold:

  • To transform workforce education from low-tech to high-tech; and
  • To eliminate the need for expensive software development and consulting intermediaries to create and maintain augmented, virtual and mixed reality (XR) applications.

Traditionally workforce ed has relied on in-person teaching sessions, one-off apprenticeships, printed manuals and a little video work. Little of that current approach is scalable or easily updated as jobs change. More recently, manufacturers have begun turning to AR and VR to teach their workers new skills.

"The skills gap in hands-on trades and emerging technology is real," said Karthik Ramani, a professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator for the project, in a statement. "SkillXR is all about boosting that skill transfer in a timely manner and enabling it to happen anywhere at any scale."

As Ramani noted, now, people are just as likely to watch a YouTube video as take a class. "We want to push that concept into the next dimension so that it's no longer just a 2D video on a screen, but it's an augmented reality experience that actually responds to you and gives you feedback."

"As skilled older manufacturing workers retire, their hands-on skills must be passed on to a new generation," said Mark Lundstrom, Purdue's acting dean of engineering. "Professor Ramani's team is addressing this critical challenge by making it possible for the first time for skilled workers to easily create augmented reality experiences that will allow younger workers to learn by doing rather than by watching. The impact on the nation's manufacturing workforce should be substantial."

SkillXR was chosen, along with either other projects, for funding through NSF's Convergence Accelerator, a program intended to address broad challenges that can be moved from the theoretical idea stage into practice with the help of multiple teams working as a cohort.

This isn't Ramani's first foray into AR for skill building. In 2018, his team received an NSF grant to explore factories of the future. One of the ideas that emerged was Skill-LeARn, a concept for using AR to educate workers.

The Purdue cohort includes an engineer, a computer scientist, an informatics expert and a learning scientist. They have been working with people from industry (both large and small businesses), the community college system of Indiana, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and other types of organizations to develop the platform.

Ramani sees potential for SkillXR beyond the factory floor. "The project also involves a variety of educational environments, such as the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, and the Indiana Rural Innovation Network," he said. "Young children can learn in a hands-on manner, even while they play games. College students can learn engineering concepts. Even doctors and nurses can practice surgical techniques. Our overarching goal is to extend the capabilities of all people, using technology."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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