Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality are all changing the way we experience reality. To put it simply, VR is an entirely computer-generated world. It is an immersive recreation of a world simulated by a computer programme. The user experiences this virtual world primarily through visual and aural inputs. In a virtual world, ordinary everyday reality is fully blocked out.
AR, on the other hand, is created by layering computer-generated elements over and above existing ordinary reality. It creates a digital layer above the ordinary physical world.
Virtual Reality offers elements of the real world in a digital environment. Whereas, Augmented Reality offers elements of the digital world in a real environment.
Virtual Reality worlds are usually experienced through headsets (Like Facebook’s Oculus Rift). Whereas, Augmented Reality is increasingly being experienced through smartphones, laptops, and tablets with apps that recreate or enhance elements of the digital world and superimpose them on to the real world.
Mixed Reality is also known as Hybrid Reality is a term still not clearly defined. It is similar to Augmented Reality in so far as simulated elements from the digital world are imposed on the real world. The key distinction might be that in Mixed Reality (and unlike Augmented Reality) elements of the real and digital world interact with each other in real-time.
At any rate, VR and AR are examples of emerging technologies that are growing exponentially. They represent a fundamental shift in how information is presented and how we experience reality. We are now at the nascent stage of these immersive technologies — but, because they are growing exponentially, they will have a dramatic impact on how the next generation of learners process data. The next generation of learners will experience media through embodied cognition and they will come to expect that this sort of immersive technologies is the new norm, and indeed, the best way to experience media.
In the immediate future, there will be a huge demand for the creation of content for VR and AR. Sectors like Healthcare, Advertising, Military, Tourism and Entertainment will be transformed. The Educational sector, on the other hand, stands to benefit the most and also be disrupted the most. Just as we’ve come to expect movies, music, books, and information on demand — people will begin to have on-demand expectations for VR and AR resources.
The EdTech space is saturated with products. Often they are gizmos and gadgets. Bright sparkly things we don’t really need to ensure learning happens. However, the use of AR and VR in education is a clear area for pedagogical innovation. This technology is going to change everything and disrupt how we learn quite dramatically. However, it is essential that we involve educators and pedagogy experts in the creation of these tools and technologies at an early stage while the technology is being developed. Far too often we see that the resources for these technologies are being developed long after the technology has been created. Often educators are involved at a very late stage where they don’t have much influence to change or make suggestions for improvements.
This will require manufacturers to fill a gap in the market and will also require educators to be retrained and upskilled. The advantage of using AR and VR in learning is that it enables the learner to have immersive experiences in real-time — thus increasing the user’s empathy quotient and also preparing them for scenarios that would be difficult to replicate in the real world. Consider, for instance, a VR/AR simulation of a dangerous experiment in the science lab. Learners would be able to actually take more risks in the simulated world and actually experience what would happen. These technologies would also be able to immerse learners in worlds they would never normally be able to experience. For instance, there could be VR renditions of the subatomic world. Learners could literally walk around atoms and molecules and experience them with full three-dimensional HD clarity. You could have VR programmes that simulate a nuclear chain reaction leading to a nuclear explosion. Learners could experience it all in real-time without experiencing the slightest physical harm.
VR/AR allows for mastery of complex concepts that can be accurately modelled to facilitate learning and lead to quicker understanding than older two-dimensional teaching aides that we currently use in the classroom. They are certainly a step above the multimedia visuals teaching tools we use and a giant leap above the old diagrams and verbal/written narratives we used to employ for most of human history. Complex subjects like neural pathways in the brain or cardiovascular and pulmonary systems in the body can be represented in a much more realistic and accurate fashion. This enables the learner to quickly and intuitively understand what’s going on by seeing and experiencing in real-time, rather than requiring them to reconstruct a comparable model in their head from 2D representations.
The possibility of virtual field trips would mean that students could go on virtual excursions to almost any place in the world and also to any place out of this world. Imagine field trips to the Orion Nebula or the rings of Saturn. Imagine vacations on the moons of Jupiter or hiking trips on the canyons of Mars. VR offers opportunities not just for trips to different places but also trips back in time. Imagine trips to the Jurassic Age or the Paleolithic Era; imagine going back in time to when Lincoln was assassinated or to the Golden Age of Ancient Greece. There are no limits to the virtual worlds we could create.
A barrier in the immediate future might be the cost. The Oculus Rift is not cheap. However, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear both provide mobile VR that requires users to place their smartphones in a headset. This immediately brings down the costs and democratises these technologies. New AR technologies could make textbooks of yore seem embarrassingly outdated. Augmented images and HD videos overlaid upon a real-world environment would make learning a novel and fascinating experience. The implications for behaviour management and special needs education would be far-reaching.
VR and AR are expected to grow into between $30 billion to $90 billion industries by 2020. The possibilities for the use of VR and AR in teaching and learning are immense and the implications for the classroom quite profound. Just think of how it can bring together people in remote areas. The notion that we all have to be physically present in once place to interact with each other will be a quaint and laughable one in the future. VR and AR technologies dissolve the constraints of geography and will help usher in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. The opportunities for education boggle the mind. But most important are the opportunities to make learning fun and exciting and in the process make the world a better and happier place.