Mixed Reality, Education, & Collaboration

Recently, when I referred to Microsoft HoloLens as an example of augmented reality, I was corrected: a better term would be “augmented virtuality.” Last year, at the NeuroGaming Conference (appropriately renamed to include the word “Experiential”), I tried zSpace, which is marketed as virtual reality despite the fact that the images appear before the user in his/her own physical space, as in augmented reality. The lines are obviously blurry, but proper understanding of technologies and correct terminology is crucial for continued growth and successful application development. For this reason, the Future Technologies team here at Pearson now uses the term “mixed reality.”

Mixed reality is the merging of real world and virtual worlds to produce a new environment where physical and digital objects can coexist and interact.

The virtuality continuum (Paul Milgram, 1995) is useful for putting mixed reality technologies in perspective. The VC is a spectrum that encompasses environments ranging from the completely physical world to the completely virtual world.

slightly modified version of Milgram’s virtuality continuum

While the boundaries between these five subsections of mixed reality are themselves not clearly defined, I will use them to detail examples of educational applications.

Tangible User Interface

An example of a natural user interface, most of us are familiar with TUI through our interaction with the computer mouse and other tactile devices we use to control digital information. Reactable, shown above, is a physical interface through which users create and modify musical experiences. Osmo is a recently-released educational product that demonstrates the high potential for collaboration among multiple users.

While the video above is promotional material, my daughter has an Osmo and often uses it while playing with friends.

Spatial Augmented Reality

Frequently used in museums, spatial AR combines physical spaces with projected elements controlled by user interactions. Nature’s Fury (2014–2015), an exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, showed the progress of Superstorm Sandy across large map of the five boroughs.

Similar to experiences with TUI, many users interacted with the display at once, but there was a stronger presence of the virtual world within our physical space.

See-Through Augmented Reality

Moving along the spectrum, we come to an area that has been much abuzz lately, thanks to the development of HoloLens, Magic Leap, and Meta 2 glasses. The digital information displayed to the wearer of the headset is specific to that user, however, the display appears to be in his/her physical space. With linked devices, multiple learners can engage with the same material at once.

Semi-Immersive Virtual Reality

Participants in Semi-Immersive VR, such as zSpace, benefit from greater immersion in the virtual world and fewer distractions from their physical surroundings. This controlled environment is usually created by a combination of a console and glasses.

Immersive Virtual Reality

In truly immersive VR, the user is no longer aware of his/her physical surroundings and experiences the virtual world as if it were real. This simulation enables the learner to explore environments in a way no other medium can offer. While this results in high level engagement, it is a singular experience and current technologies do not offer much collaboration. Any interaction with the real world draws the user out from that virtual space.


In summary, understanding learner collaboration is extremely important when considering educational applications of mixed reality technologies.

Coming soon: how biosyncing can be used to create richer mixed reality experiences across the spectrum.

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