Can Augmented Reality Augment Workplace Learning?

Unless you were hiding happily under a rock the summer of 2016, you can’t have failed to notice the plethora of Pokémon hunters that emerged following the release of Pokémon GO last July.

It seemed like everyone was doing it: wandering around outside, mobile in hand, with the sole intention of throwing Poké Balls at an unsuspecting Squirtle or Charmander, which were themselves digital inscriptions on an otherwise familiar (and very real) landscape.

But wait, what has this got to do with workplace learning solutions?

If the Pokémon Go craze has taught us anything, it’s that augmented reality (AR) has the potential to catapult user engagement into a new stratosphere; anything that doubles, triples, or quadruples engagement should have the forward-thinking L&D manager sitting up to take note. AR may extend well beyond a tool for engagement in the workplace. In 2013, Gartner predicted that AR will become an important workplace tool. In that report, Tuong Huy Nguyen defined AR as “the real-time use of information in the form of text, graphics, audio and other virtual enhancements integrated with real-world objects.”

Unlike Virtual Reality (VR) that immerses users in an entirely new digital environment (via headsets or special eyewear), AR meshes the real world with computer-generated objects via glasses, a headset, or a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone. AR overlays digital content like schematics, 3D animations, videos, images, or audio onto the real world and invites the user to interact with this digital content in a multisensory way. This additional information is triggered via the device’s camera and sensors. The experience is not as immersive as VR but already is delivering learning enhancements in a number of markets, including field based industries like oil exploration, mining, energy and pharmaceuticals.

Using AR for Augmenting Learning

A wide range of companies have been exploring and experimenting with AR for some time now from Sony, Microsoft, and Google to Intel and Apple. AR as a concept is not new. The term “augmented reality” was first coined by Boeing in the early 1990s, and in 1992, inventor Louis Rosenberg developed one of the earliest AR systems for the US Air Force.

Field-based industry learning applications make sense. AR presents opportunities for those working in hazardous workplaces and industries like oil exploration, mining, energy, and pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers of smart glasses are releasing hazardous location glasses, a technology ideal for environments where employees need to be hands free, have access to safety information, assistance tools, or remote assistance. Market research firm ABI Research said earlier this year that it expects AR in enterprise applications to “hit an inflection point in 2018, with smart glass shipments growing to 28 million in 2021.”

And while Google glass may not have cracked the consumer market for AR in 2014, consumer facing applications will grow. In fact, any content that is datable or static and would benefit from an additional content input or a unique perspective will be an ideal AR enhancement candidate from art and museum locations to journalism.

The potential for all educators is plainly significant and AR has many school-based applications. Hidden content in a History of Art lesson could transform a painting into a “talking portrait,” like in a Harry Potter movie, giving additional detail around sitter and artist while subjects like Math, Science, Engineering come alive through the movement, animation and fun that interacting directly with a live 3D model brings. AR features are perfect to support class materials.  This space is already filling up fast and there are a number of AR apps for pupils.

Evidence of Successful AR Learning
At the 2015 Augmented World Exposition, Santa Clara, California, Boeing electrical engineer Paul Davies shared the results of an internal study detailing how trainees performed when asked to assemble a mock wing for the aircraft manufacturer.

Three cohorts of learners were given three methods of training and instructions: one group received animated AR instructions displayed on a tablet, whereas the others got a static PDF on either a computer or tablet. Davies concluded that the AR-tablet group were 30% faster and 90% more accurate on their first attempts than the other groups. So while it is still early days for AR, studies like this one could point up a potentially effective learning future.

From Trends to Adaptation

AR is one of several learning trends attracting real interest in the learning community, typically appearing high on any L&D trends list, usually alongside VR. Not every trend, however, is destined for adaptation. The gamification trend rose quickly, and while many have integrated gamification successfully into their learning design, it has not gained the traction expected or predicted by now. How quickly AR will make it into general learning interventions remains to be seen. We need an uncomplicated path to development and application for this emerging technology, as well as an ability to imagine it into and around our learning challenges and solutions.

Making AR Useful
AR has the potential to enhance the human aspects of learning by offering a level of supplemental content and interactivity that accelerates understanding and comprehension in a range of settings. The supporting technologies are increasingly mobile and hands-free; environmentally and spatially aware; and, well, just downright smart.

AR is a paradigm shift for educators, working in sync with a number of other up-and-coming trends in digital learning. Take a moment now to consider how and where you might use AR to radically augment your learning programs. Watch the portrait come alive.

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