Augmented reality in e-learning — just virtual reality?

On Wednesday 13th April, Spurs were knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid, bringing great sadness upon my heart. The manner of the defeat is not relevant to augmented reality technology in any sense, but I’d like to think that it provides anecdotal evidence that I’d been planning this blog well before this article appeared on the BBC website.

I’d gone to the game with a friend from university, who happens to work for the software development company Autonomy. A couple of days prior to the match, he’d linked me to a demo on a new product they were developing – Aurasma. I didn’t think much of the name either, but Aurasma seemed to be something completely different to anything I’d encountered before. See for yourself.

Augmented reality for mobile devices isn’t anything new. Google Goggles and other Android and iPhone apps can overlay geographical information on your smartphone display, but what really sets Aurasma apart is that it can overlay media and moving imagery within the display. No QR codes or redirection, just immediate delivery.

So does this mean we have a brave new world of content delivery ahead of us? I’d certainly like to think so. It’s easy to start imagining the possibilities of an augmented reality tool like Aurasma; for instance, a manufacturing firm may have installed a fancy new piece of machinery which will cut time and effort required to make the product, be it computer chips or tights (can you tell I’m running with this one on the fly?). Normally, they would have to show each employee one-on-one how to correctly use the machinery, but what if their employees could point their mobile device at it and see a demonstration onscreen? No-one would have to train new employees how to use the machine, and it would also provide a reference tool for old hats who want to refresh their memory.

Despite the apparent potential for immediate use, the cynic in me can’t help thinking that we won’t see this being widely used for another decade or so or perhaps, even, not at all. The success of augmented reality will be fundamentally linked to growth and investment in mobile learning. A lot of people in the industry are pointing to the leapfrogging in communications that parts of Africa are experiencing as proof that mobile learning is where we’re headed. I agree that mobile learning is really starting to gather momentum, but I think the greatest advances might not be on mobile devices as we know them.

At this point though I’m stuck. Although I am tempted to get all Arthur C. Clarke and start making wild predictions about what the future might look like, I’m going to try and illustrate my theory by citing precedent. Remember MiniDisc players? They were far more advanced and convenient than tapes, 33s and 45s. But they missed out on popular support because they were too expensive and, by the time the price had fallen, MP3 was starting to gather momentum.

Although current smartphones are relatively cheap, they’re prohibitively expensive enough for many organisations to be unable to issue a device to their frontline staff. Security is also an issue – where do you host the content, and how do you protect the device?

I’m hypothesising that mobile learning in its current form might end up being looked upon as the MiniDisc player of e-learning content delivery – good, effective and doing what it’s designed to do, but ultimately replaced by the capabilities of the next generation of cheaper, better performing devices. It’s easy to think that with the speed of progress – I can well see my iPhone 3GS being obsolete in less than three years, and I only bought it last year. With a greater number of the population smartphone equipped, mobile learning has a great opportunity to develop, and I can well see augmented reality playing a massive part on those platforms.