To deliver more effective learning experiences, we’re forever exploring new technologies. In recent years my studio has investigated the promise of mixed reality (MxR). What is it really good for?

First, MxR is not one thing. It’s a broad technology spectrum:

  • It starts with reality, pure and simple. The learner is exposed to no digital content.
  • It ends with virtual reality (VR). Learners experience an entirely synthetic world. Visual, auditory, and body sense all report only the app’s authored content.
  • Between these two extremes lies the complex territory of transreality, in which the senses merge both real and synthetic signals.
    • In augmented reality (AR), the learner sees elements of digital content embedded in the real environment, like a Pokémon in a 7-Eleven.
    • In augmented virtuality, the synthetic world features real-time elements of the real world, like a TV weatherman green-screened onto the weather map.

These are powerful new technologies, and easily abused. Their novelty and trendiness can elevate the profile of mediocre ideas without actually improving them.

Adding actual value with mixed reality

But some applications are no-brainers. Simulation training makes a strong use case for virtual reality eLearning.

Firefighters hunt through smoke and flame to rescue trapped children. How do they train for that? Classroom instruction is inadequate. On-the-job training would be too dangerous for the learner, the instructor, and the trapped kids. Occasionally a lucky fire department burns an abandoned building to train their crews, but they rarely populate it first with screaming children. Virtual reality can help develop situational awareness in a hazardous environment.

Schell Games is constructing SuperChem with this in mind. This VR simulation of a high school chemistry lab avoids the dangers of poisons and burns. A stronger selling point is that it eliminates the cost of a lab. In an era of underbudgeted districts, increased home schooling, and for-profit K-12, we can imagine (uneasily) that the “VR room” will replace chem lab, woodshop, basketball court, art studio, and all field trips.

Outside the MxR use cases

Corporate talent-development professionals should consider where virtual reality can add actual value. A training program for hotel managers begs for VR when trainees learn to inspect bathrooms and lobbies for neatness, branding, and safety; not so much when it teaches customer interaction protocols. Until we get good voice recognition and chatbot technology, the UX is click-to-talk. The drop-down dialog selector is more disturbing in immersive virtual reality than in the framed space of a screen.

Many learning challenges do not require transporting the learner to a world that is dangerous, expensive, or remote. Without such need, and once its novelty is exhausted, virtual reality may offer no advantage over traditional methods that cost less to develop and deploy.

Of course, traditional methods are themselves falling out of favor. We now seek learning that is bite-sized, ambient, and embedded. These qualities are not found in virtual reality. For these, we look elsewhere on the MxR spectrum.

Job aids and blurred lines

Many applications really use MxR as a job aid, not as a true learning platform. At Caterpillar, maintenance workers wearing AR visors scan complex earthmoving machines and see alerts and status dashboards superimposed on the relevant parts. This application is clearly heads-up data fusion, not eLearning.

But other applications blur that line. Classic learning paradigms are upset when every part in front of the worker’s visor can instantly show a superimposed data sheet or maintenance manual, or a context-sensitive microlesson showing how to repair the specific failure that this part is about to suffer.

You can see where this is going. AR will lead a migration from preparatory learning to work-centered knowledge management. Facts that used to be taught in a classroom are now available just in time and just in place and structured around the work object.

Not all work objects are the same. Some workers stand behind their work. Others stand inside it.

At the civil engineering giant AECOM, discussion of job-site augmented reality runs right into safety concerns. Distracted walking is a recognized hazard on construction sites and factory floors. It is bad now, in the age of the smartphone. Will an augmented reality visor make it worse?

Proponents argue that glancing toward an intelligent heads-up display is safer than staring down at a handheld screen. Skeptics still fear the shiny sprites that command our attention and sometimes block our view.

An AR app will be aware of real-world hooks for its instructional content. It may also be aware of a smart machine’s maintenance complaints. But it probably is not tuned to the danger of an oncoming forklift or a misplaced coil of wire.

Not yet, anyway. In a few years, when the tech developed for driverless cars migrates to AR, the workers with visors will be arguably safer than their unassisted colleagues.

They will surely be more job-ready, and with much less training.

From the editor: Learn more at Realities360

Whether you’re just getting interested in enhanced realities or you’re already developing VR, AR, transreality, or augmented virtuality for learning, you should definitely be at Realities 360, July 26 – 28 in San Jose, California. Register now to see sessions like these and many more:

  • Augmented Reality on a Budget—This BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) session will help you create your own basic AR solutions and give you a jumping-off point for building your AR development skills even further.
  • Connecting Training to the Real World with Scenario-Based AR/VR—In this session, you’ll explore a different approach to VR that bridges the gaps between the virtual and real worlds: a “window shade.” In this approach, people view a scenario or process in VR, experiencing it directly from the expert’s POV, and then “pull the shade up” by switching to a guided AR live practice mode where they apply what they learned in their real-world setting.
  • Making Immersive Learning Accessible with Mobile VR—Hear the findings of a year-long investigation into the opportunities of using mobile VR in workplace learning. Discover how visual design, music, and positional audio work together to immerse users in the experience. The session includes a live demo of mobile VR for learning. Take away tips on aligning the technology to your business challenges and integrating it with your learning strategy.