AR/VR’s Impact on Academia

Examining an emerging technology that could drastically alter the education experience. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Richmond

CREDIT USC Institute for Creative TechnologiesToday, VR/AR serves as the newest technology that presents a tremendous opportunity to impact educators and their students. In fact, 36% of respondents of a Consumer Electronics Show survey, commissioned by IEEE, indicate that education would see the biggest impact from this technology. AR/VR (augmented reality, virtual reality) presents an opportunity for students to become more interactive with information. For example, if students were learning about antibiotics, they could use a VR viewer to visually understand the molecular details, and make the cognitive leap from a flat sheet of paper to 3-dimensional space. This capability and others suggests that AR/VR presents a significant opportunity to transform education.

Digital Experiences for Real-World Application

Digital’s big advantage is scale – it provides an ability to reach many more people than a single human can, and extend availability to point and time of need. It does not replace a human in the process, but it can replace some of the tasks currently done by teachers, administrators, and other people in the education chain.

For example, the introduction of Google’s ‘Expeditions’ program, provides a kit that allows teachers to take his or her class on a field trip that may not be feasible due to budget or safety concerns. From Buckingham Palace to The Great Barrier Reef, over 500,000 students have taken part in virtual reality tours made possible by these cardboard viewing kits.

Overall, AR/VR’s impact on education goes further and possesses the ability to bridge cultures and create understanding among students. As technology continues to progress, students from opposite ends of the globe can participate in virtual trips together, break down barriers, and share their worlds. AR/VR has the potential to become an “empathy machine”.

Often, technology in the classroom has been pursued for the sake of “new” rather than based on pedagogical needs and desires. However, the introduction of AR/VR can now look to address the concerns of technology costs in the classroom. Citi analyst Kota Ezawa claims that 2016 will be the year that VR takes off, as the market is expected to grow to a $15.9 billion industry by 2019. Also, Citi anticipates the market for hardware, networks, software and content will reach $200 billion by 2020. As the markets revenue expands, the price tag for learning will continue to drop. Currently, Google Cardboard lists for $20 and Samsung Gear VR is priced at $99. Ultimately, access to a mobile VR device will be affordable for many more users and as a result, additional schools.

Experimentation Is Key

One challenge is that VR/AR is still in the wild west phase of development, and experimentation (and failure) is necessary (and assured). People have gotten used to technology having more capabilities and just “working,” but content, context, and experiences, as delivered by VR/AR, are a more difficult problem space to explore and solve. Imagine that it is 1900 and Thomas Edison has given you a film camera. Time to shoot a movie; but what is a movie? You don’t know what an edit or a tracking shot is, you don’t understand how depth of field influences viewer emotion – you’re starting from scratch. Ultimately, new technology does require experimentation. But all too often experiments get pushed as solutions, and then fail to produce desired results – if people even know what the desired results could be.

Human Interaction is Still Critical

Once you start to get compelling content and experiences for the classroom, you also have to solve the question of what really ”is” the classroom, and what do you do there? Given this ability to deliver immersive content to point and time of need, now what does that in-person transaction look like? We need to radically rethink “school” and what goes on in the real-time physical space. School still serves critical functions, including teaching and practice for interpersonal skills. Even in increasing digital spaces, the analog, human interaction still has value and will continue to be necessary for success in society.

Overall, the physical space/time at school is important, and we should optimize that experience to leverage things that are more difficult to learn and practice digitally. Beyond exploring what we can do, we need to experiment, understand, and optimize digital experiences to figure out how that works for humans, and why it is important. VR/AR will go from a novelty (as it is now) to a market (in the next few years) to a commodity capability (like chairs and tables). Getting to that point will take technical advances, content/context experimentation and deep thinking about the results of collaboration between this technology, students, the classroom, and the world.

Todd Richman, an IEEE member, is Director of Advanced Prototypes at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. Write to:


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