Augmented Reality Check

Inasmuch as learning and training conferences have their fingers on the pulse of our field, it seems that augmented reality is a hot trend. For instance, the Innovations in e-Learning Symposium features augmented reality as one of its principle topics.

What is it? The Wikipedia page for “augmented reality” offers several definitions, none of which are quite as helpful or descriptive as the summary that kicks off the article:

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics.

As the topic will come up later, it may be useful to distinguish augmented reality from alternate reality games (ARGs).Again, to Wikipedia: “An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.” The main distinctions between the two are that technology-filtered sensory inputs are required for augmented reality and merely optional for ARGs, and that augmented reality does not explicitly need to be tied to a narrative or game structure with a corresponding objective or win-state.

I’ve been aware of augmented reality as a distinct field since William Gibson’s brilliant 2007 novel Spook Country, in which one of the main characters uses a pair of virtual reality-equipped sunglasses to see art pieces installed at specific locations around Los Angeles, pieces that most passersby are unaware even exist. Since “augmented reality” has existed as a phrase since 1990 and examples of the concept date back much further, I’m clearly late to the party.

Most people are familiar with some simple examples of augmented reality, like the yellow first-down line on football telecasts or audio tours in museums. While the augmentation in “augmented reality” can be purely audio, people are generally much more excited by visual enhancements.

What can augmented reality actually do for us in the training field? As a concept that is intrinsically dependent on technology, the proper answer to that question is, “It depends on what technology is available to our learners.” We are frequently faced with a target audience that has limited technological capabilities, with many companies going so far as to lock down their employees’ computers, disabling new applications and webcams and other features that would be helpful in executing an augmented reality experience.

Another less obvious constraint is that augmented reality implies an enhanced interpretation of reality in real time, or something close to it. Many corporate learners have jobs that keep them tied to a computer all day; in other words, their work realities are already mired in virtuality. Even our most immersive simulations occur within an entirely virtual world and frequently with artificial time constraints. Hmm… maybe this concept isn’t so useful to us, after all.

I’m not ready to give up, yet. While these constraints significantly limit the number of potential learners, there are plenty of people who do most of their work away from a computer screen, and those people can’t always log in to a training course to find the information they need. There are also millions of people who have handy devices filled with augmented reality potential, some of them even distributed by their employers: smartphones, MP3 players, and tablets. I think the audience for augmented reality training lies in the intersection.

There are already iPhone apps that will use the device’s camera and GPS to survey your surroundings and tell you where to find the nearest restaurant or where you parked your car. Why not an app that identifies part numbers or indexes a repair manual for whatever machinery you capture with the camera? The UN already supplies real-time language translation for foreign dignitaries. Why not an app that combines a microphone and translation software to provide just enough alternate audio or subtitles for call center employees, global enterprises, or those in tourist-centered industries get by when faced with a foreign speaker? It may not be a universal translator, but it might be enough to fend off frustration and hand-waving. After all, there’s already an app that will translate written text on the fly.

Some people are already going so far as to combine augmented reality concepts with what amounts to an alternate reality game (an AARG?). A University of New Mexico Spanish class thrusts students into an interactive story where they explore a real neighborhood and use real Spanish skills to solve a virtual mystery presented through augmented reality clues. It’s an ambitious and risky technique that probably goes far beyond what most corporate clients would be willing to try, but it demonstrates the potential of the concepts.

I’m sure you can all think of many more uses, but I’m inclined to think that as iPads, smartphones, digital cameras, and MP3 players further monopolize our lives, the opportunities for augmented reality experiences and training will increase and perhaps even become synonymous with another industry buzzword: mobile learning. Maybe these are properly called job aids rather than e-learning courses. I’m okay with that. Sometimes that’s all the learner really needs.