Credit: Gary Larson, “The Far Side”

Augmented Realities: Tomorrow’s New Normal

Participating today in the Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Munich, I couldn’t help but get a bit ‘meta.’ I’m barely 40, yet it seems like yesterday I rushed to get my hands on the Boston Globe to read the news, sports scores and comics. Just recounting this makes me feel old…but it wasn’t really that long ago. Was it? Is it possible we were introduced to the first iPhone only a decade ago? Just as today’s smartphones make the original look primitive, current top-of-the-line models are surely going to be obsolete within just a few years. Even the very idea of using a smartphone or laptop is going to be outdated by the time my 12 year old daughter graduates from high school.

There is no doubt that we will soon have a new normal in which artificial intelligence, spacial computing (3D with voice&hand controls — no keyboards), extended reality & immersive media will fundamentally transform our relationship with technology (again).

Many parents, educators and other concerned citizens, will wonder if immersive media will be good or bad development. This is a natural question but I am not sure this is the best framing. We could make arguments about the pros and cons of the smartphone, for example. Undoubtedly, smartphones could be blamed for growing narcissism, isolation, distraction or compulsion. At the same time, on a macro level, mobile technologies have brought more opportunities to make a living, accumulate knowledge, access powerful tools and build connective tissues than ever previously imagined. A similar dynamic, on an even greater scale, will undoubtedly be true of new immersive media technologies. The question will always remain: how can we employ thesetechnologies to improve peoples’ understandings, opportunities and connectedness?

As a life-long educator, I am especially interested in the incredible potential of extended reality experiences to enhance our understanding of the world, humanity and history. What if students anywhere, for example, were able to virtually visit the Louvre Museum, or the Polar Ice Caps or even Mars without ever actually leaving the classroom? This is already possible with incredibly realistic imagery, audio and definition using virtual reality headsets.

But this is just the beginning. Imagine if we could actually walk by the real Louvre towards the Place de la Concorde and have the experience of that same physical environment during the 12th century or the French Revolution or during the second world war? To take a different example, imagine visitors to the US Capital could experience what it was like to be among 200,000 Americans during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Indeed, immersive media (AR&VR) has incredible potential to bring history alive with unprecedented resonance.

One can imagine so many ways in which immersive media will be used to enhance classroom teaching and learning across the board. It will be possible, for example, to introduce into classrooms life-like holograms of historic figures like Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jane Austen or Nelson Mandela. Students could not only listen to their personal narratives but even carry on an interactive conversation with them to better understand the complexities of their life and times. In the STEM fields, in particular, students can physically observe and manipulate incredibly detailed and life-like 3D assets to understand subjects such as biology, chemistry , physics and geometry. In such use cases, the teachers, walls and students will all be able to simultaneously share interactive experiences…in their actual environment, in real-time, without screens.

Moving from screens is key. Augmented reality has the potential to pull us away from isolated experiences on laptops or smartphones by bringing the digital into the “real world” in a much more realistic way than 2D screens or images have ever done. If we can employ these new technologies well, there will be incredibly exciting applications to enhance learning.

As citizens — local, national or global — immersive media could also foster greater understanding of humanity’s incredible diversity, breadth and depth. It is still early days for immersive media, but initial use cases and studies tell us that virtual and augmented reality can demonstrably help us to understand the perspective and experiences of others; in other words, to empathize. This would be most welcome.

In any event, whether you see a new era of immersive media as promising, threatening or somewhere in between…the “new normal” of tomorrow is both inevitable and fast approaching. As Gary Larson prophetically warned us in “The Far Side”way back in the 90s: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”