C-Level View | Feature

From Dreams to Realities: AR/VR/MR in Education

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

"Actually, I think we aren't that far from being able to deliver on the powerful visions of teaching faculty.' — Daniel Christian

The marketplace for augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality technologies may be heating up. Daniel Christian, a senior instructional designer at Calvin College observes that significant R&D investments, product development, and more powerful enabling technologies are setting the stage for new AR/VR/MR initiatives in higher education.

Mary Grush: We've seen many good initiatives in higher education that have pioneered examples of AR, VR, and MR for instruction. But will these modes of interaction become more established and commonly used at our institutions in general?

Daniel Christian: All too often, when people working within the field of higher education think of modes of interaction like augmented reality or virtual reality, their minds harken back to something like the launch of Second Life in 2003. That online virtual world may have made for some great experiments in education back then, but Second Life turned out to have relatively few really active "islands" in higher education, and those initiatives had limited impact on our educational programs and institutions in a broader sense. Unfortunately, it's an easy leap for people to sum up those early VR initiatives as somewhat of a "flash-in-the pan" and discount any future potential for augmented reality, virtual reality, or mixed reality in education.

But…let's hold on a bit here. We shouldn't be too quick to cast these relatively new forms of Human Computer Interaction aside. There have been several important developments that have changed the game since the first go-arounds in virtual worlds and the VR attempts of yesteryear.

Grush: Are supporting technologies changing in ways that might make AR/VR/MR more commonplace?

Christian: Yes. The fact is that the technologies that enable AR, VR, and MR have become far faster, more powerful, and more robust. Along with that, our mobile devices and the underlying networks to support them have come a long way — not just in the number of devices connected, but in the bandwidth over which information is delivered to and from them, as well as the computing power that these devices now bring to the table.

Grush: Is the technology marketplace going to focus more on changes in supporting technologies and in new product development relative to AR/VR/MR — effectively making these modes of interaction more affordable for everyone?

Christian: Yes. The prices of the software and hardware that enable AR/VR/MR experiences are becoming and will become more reasonable. Increasingly, even general consumers are becoming able to experience new forms of HCI. For example, Google Cardboard only costs around $15 dollars.

Grush: Is there a signpost you might point to that would indicate that there's going to be more product development in AR/VR/MR?

Christian: There's a significant one. Several major players — with very deep pockets — within the corporate world are investing in new forms of HCI, including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Magic Leap, and others. In fact, according to an article on engadget.com from 6/16/16, "Magic Leap has amassed an astounding $1.39 billion in funding without shipping an actual product." So to me, it's just not likely that the billions of dollars being invested in a variety of R&D-related efforts are simply going to evaporate without producing any impactful, concrete products or services. There are too many extremely smart, creative people working on these projects, and they have impressive financial backing behind their research and product development efforts. So, I think we can expect an array of new choices in AR/VR/MR.

Grush: Do you foresee educators responding to a new wave of AR/VR/MR products and technologies?

Christian: Yes, and I think there is going to be some pressure for them to act, coming from the way students use technologies. It's getting harder for instructors to obtain and maintain students' attention, as numerous things may be vying for students' time these days (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other sites or services). To be able to offer compelling, engaging learning experiences is a highly attractive, powerful idea that instructors will want to pursue.

Grush: Are you saying that students will be driving AR/VR/MR technology adoption on campus?

Christian: Perhaps saying that students will be driving these new forms of HCI is a bit too strong — though I think they can and will have some impact here (through vehicles such as course evaluations and requests for suggestions). But perhaps most importantly, instructors and instructional designers will want to use the tools available to them to engage students, and to teach well. The leveraging of new instructional opportunities has been the case all along with technology change, from the early days of multimedia, to the more recent ascension of social communications — and the next wave may well be AR/VR/MR tools for education.

Grush: So do you think faculty have AR/VR/MR on their radar?

Christian: That's an important question, and the answer may inspire you.

While it's probably too early to say for most faculty or even for many instructional designers and technologists, behind the stage things are being set for change, and that change could happen fast, once it starts. A lot of what's coming down the pike isn't quite here yet and some of the vendors, such as Magic Leap, are pretty secretive about what they are working on. But just wait 'til it's here… everyone will be aware.

That said, there are some visionary faculty out there who have exciting, compelling dreams of using emerging forms of Human Computer Interaction to unlock a whole new world of learning experiences for their students. And of course, successful teaching and learning practices will be passed along in the disciplines, once there are solid models to share.

Grush: What is the conversation like now, between visionary faculty and lead instructional designers like you? Can you rightfully encourage them in their visions?

Christian: Good question! Actually, I think we aren't that far from being able to deliver on the powerful visions of teaching faculty. 

Just the other day I was talking to Jason VanHorn, an associate professor in our geology, geography, and environmental studies department. After finishing our discussion about a particular learning space and how we might implement active learning in it, we got to talking about mixed reality. He related his wonderful dreams of being able to view, manipulate, maneuver through, and interact with holographic displays of our planet Earth.

When I mentioned a video piece done by Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic that featured Microsoft's Hololens technology, he knew exactly what I was referring to. But this time, instead of being able to drill down through the human body to review, explore, and learn about the various systems composing our human anatomy, he wanted to be able to drill down through the various layers of the planet Earth. He also wanted to be able to use gestures to maneuver and manipulate the globe — turning the globe to just the right spot before using a gesture to drill down to a particular place.

Associate Professor VanHorn wrote to me: "I am very familiar with the Hololens and have looked into it. I see it as a middle point of where I want to get to. The Hololens gives the flexibility of no-cave, thus autonomy of movement in real space… I want to get beyond that to make holograms in real space and time based on the spatial layering of GIS. In order to do this we should have the fastest network possible to move data and I think the solution is Internet2. I am on the grant… going into the NSF to bring Internet2 to the campus. The medical field uses this to its advantage and I think with the large data I deal with all the time in the geospatial field of GIS and Remote Sensing, I can also take advantage of I2."

I believe that we are on the cusp of enormous change in how we interact with computers. I'm talking on a level of HCI platform-related changes — huge in scope and impact. It's my hope that I'll be able to go back to Associate Professor VanHorn in the not-too-distant future with some great news: His dreams can finally become reality. What exact form of AR/VR/MR the solution for him will take remains to be seen, but I'll be excited to help him deliver on his vision for teaching and learning.


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