Augmented Reality (AR) has been around for some time and also has been labeled as a “gimmicky” technology. With a couple of new applications using AR, it is now being revisited again in the educational world. What exactly is AR? According to Wikipedia Augmented Reality is “ a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” So AR is not VR (Virtual Reality) where everything you see and experience is not interacting in your own real environment and is computer generated. AR uses the real world around you and blends your perceptions of world with technology enhancements (be it 3D graphics or images or text) and overlays the technology on your real world environment. A good example of AR that many see is in sports. AR is used in football TV broadcasts. A yellow line is superimposed on the grass to show viewers where the first down marker is located. If you were a fan in the stands, you do not see the line since you are viewing the game in the real world and without a device that is projecting the AR object, the yellow line. AR helps us interact and digitally manipulate the real world around us.
So now we know what AR is, then how do we use it? What tools do we need to get started at a basic level using AR? As we mentioned earlier, a TV can help us view AR. There is a wide range of technologies that can help us view and create AR. Smartphones running certain apps, and tablets can view AR data. A webcam and also view AR data. So you first need a device that can view (with a camera lens) and interpret the AR data.
If we decide to use a webcam to view AR data, how does the camera know how to interact and display AR data? You would use a program to create a graphic marker (is usually square and is very similar to a QR code) . Then you have software that connects the image or 3D model you created to that image marker. Then the user (the person viewing and moving the marker in the webcam) will need to download some software so they can see whatever is being rendered in AR. Using markers is pretty common to view AR material. There are kits online to help you build markers and objects. This free kit called SLARToolkit is free and works using Microsofts Sliverlight (http://kodierer.blogspot.com/2010/02/slartoolkit-silverlight-augmented.html). You can also build the same markers in Adobe products using Flash.
Here’s an example of using a webcam and markers to view AR:
Another way to view AR data is through mobile apps. Since these devices are mobile, GSP and location specific data are also tied into these AR apps. Once such app is called Layar. Layar is a mobile app that displays real time digital meta data over real world physical objects and is viewed through the camera on your mobile device. Using Augmented Reality (AR) technology, Layar displays digital information called “layers” into your smartphone’s (iPad’s) field of vision. It is described as an Augmented Reality browser. When you view something real with the Layar browser, lets say, a concert hall, a link to buy tickets might pop up next the the building on your phone or tablet or maybe some text giving some background or history about the building. Even if people rated the concert hall, all that data can be floating around the building and viewed through your phone. You are interacting with an enhanced reality. Also Layar has a Layar Player to help you build your own augmented reality content to be viewed by users. The Layar Player currently only runs on iPhones. The advantage of using the Layar Player is that a user does not have to download the Layar software to view the content. The Layar Browsers allows for you to add content to the browser and you can share with others. The Layar Browser is free. To add “matches” you can add 10,000 a month for free. According to Layar a “ match is counted for each object target that is successfully tracked and the associated content displayed to the user for at least 1 second.”
Now that we know how AR can be viewed and created, how can it be used in education? Recently, AR has been explored in the medical sciences and using the a Microsoft Kinect platform hack. The Kinect hack is called Mirracle.
It helps students study anatomy. Software from the OpenNI and PrimeSense NITE is programmed to project the skeleton of a person onto the subject in front of the mirror while the Kinect helps track where the the person is and what data should be displayed on the body. The Kinect is next to the screen, so the person standing in front of the Mirracle system can interact with the screen. They can use hand gestures to explore cross sections of CT data and move up and down to see different skeletal structure in that area of the body. Bangor Augmented Reality Education Tool for Anatomy (BARETA -developed at the Bangor University in Gwynedd, UK)), is another project that uses AR to teach anatomy. It combines AR and Rapid Prototyping models to help students with the stimulation for touch as well as sight. AR is also being explored in remote education environments. This can help with costs, if say, students want to run an experiment, but can’t afford all the parts that they need. They can create AR objects to interact with in the real world. Along with cost, the danger of running a real experiment can be reduced by using digital AR objects instead of their hazardous real life counterparts. Also being able to go beyond what is physically possible (enlarging microscopic 3D digital models and rotating them in space) is an advantage in using AR in education. Students that are engineers can enter the working parts of a machine to see how the process works and how certain parts fit into a system. Different Laws of Science that have taken Centuries to develop and unfold can be sped up using AR to see the process and simulate the processes.
What if you want to use AR and you really don’t have programing skills or a big budget? Then the first method, the markers and a webcam, is your best way to go or a free app like Layar to have students add meta data to objects for an assignment or project. ARToolkit (http://www.hitl.washington.edu/artoolkit/download/) is a cross platform software (free) to help you develop codes and objects for AR. Another route some use is to build 3D models in Google Scketup and then use a free plug-in called AR-media™ Plugin for Google Sketch-Up. To get started, you can use free 3D models from the 3D Warehouse in Google Sketchup. Then you can use the plugin, codes (markers) and a webcam to view the 3D models. If your 3D model has layers, this plugin will allow for you to view the 3D model in layers too.
AR is a great tool for a course to engage students. It lets them use different senses to learn different concepts and presents it in a visual way. Interaction is something we are coming to expect more and more from educational experiences, and AR can help fulfill that expectation.