There has been a lot of buzz around virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR) and how they’ll revolutionize eLearning. Will they? Can they really enhance eLearning? Or have we heard this buzz before?

More importantly, can VR and AR actually get learners to remember more, to add skills, to improve their performance—our big, overriding goals—or are they just two more buzzwords that will eventually get dumped on the trash heap of eLearning buzzwords that didn’t deliver on an impossible promise?

And most importantly, are VR and AR ready for prime time? Can you use them now, and can you produce cost-effective and learner-effective eLearning with the tech available today?

Let’s find out.

What are VR and AR?

First, we need to understand what virtual reality and augmented reality are. In a way, VR and AR are cut from the same technology cloth but are far different in implementation. Both have elements of 3-D and are meant to give the viewer a simulacrum of some sort, even though both are different implementations of tech. Both require some sort of display device.

To the end user, VR and AR show very different faces and have very different uses. VR still requires the viewer to wear a “face brick,” as some engineers call it. VR creates a total immersion into a designed world. It can be based on the real world with video, or an imaginary world that is more like animation. The problem with VR is that, although it’s a very powerful medium, the viewer can have trouble totally accepting the “concept” of reality with the display sitting on their face. But sometimes it works, and works well. However, it’s a fact that there’s a big, opaque mask hanging in front of your face. The question is: Can your training be effective in this reality?

AR is more of a data delivery system that augments the reality of the learner (or anyone else who can use AR). AR needs some sort of glasses or other projection mechanism. Augmented reality is in one sense easier than VR and in another more difficult. Think of the late, but not lamented, Google Glass. It put data in front of the user’s face. It looked like it was floating there. Google Glass was just too limiting in what it could display, so it was not useful except as an attention-getter that showed you when you got a text or email. You couldn’t interact with it right there. You had to get to or use a different device to interact. A lot of the training we create will explore how to use the AR in front of our faces. Whatever heads-up display technology we wind up using to augment reality is going to make a difference in the knowledge we have at our fingertips. It’s not easy.

AR and VR are coming. They are an unavoidable part of our future. There will be (and are now) topics that are wholly appropriate for eLearning, or any kind of learning or information display, for that matter. The caveat here is: Don’t look at either one as a panacea, and don’t look at being able to do VR or AR on a reasonable budget anytime soon. There are a lot of equipment hurdles, hardware hurdles, and software hurdles to overcome first.

Practical use of VR and AR in eLearning

If there’s no real way to do this for now, is it practical to use? Absolutely. In eLearning, we’ve seen a parade of tech march by us in the last 20 or so years. If you’re old enough to remember what things were like in 1997 and really think about it, we’ve come an amazing distance.

But are virtual and augmented reality practical in eLearning now, in 2017? Yes, if you have a large training organization. Implementing either VR or AR in a course is a labor- and equipment-intensive project that requires lots of resources in both equipment and people. If you have the resources, then you’ll be able to truly think about when VR or AR is appropriate for the course you’re designing or developing. In a smaller organization, or in a department of one, you’ll have a great time thinking of applications but a hard time using these applications in your training—unless, of course, you have the budget to outsource the AR or VR development.

What are some practical uses of VR and AR? It’s easier to describe and think about what uses AR can have and how you can put it to use immediately. In many ways, AR is mind-boggling in its potential application. Here are a few examples: Think of a person assembling anything. They could use AR to get a magnified view of the parts they’re working with. Or think of a stock trader who needs to simultaneously be talking to someone and looking at the data flowing across their screen. Think of a salesperson talking to a client face-to-face with all the sales figures and information they need floating in front of their eyes. The list of potential practical applications of AR is endless.

VR is a different story. The fact is, it’s harder to see how VR might apply itself in the workplace. Training on objects is an appropriate use of VR, especially when the objects are all around the person being trained. One application might be showing an environment someone would be immersed in. But it’s a very, very different thing than AR. In fact, they don’t have a lot in common except that VR might incorporate AR. But it’s going to be harder to think of and create applications that will incorporate AR into VR.

What tools do you need to create VR or AR?

This is easy for VR. You need a camera or cameras that can shoot a 360-degree sphere around you. There are several cameras that are built for this purpose, and there are also several rigs available that you can use to mount a whole bunch of GoPro cameras that cover 360 degrees. Nikon makes a camera that does this as a single camera. It’s a little easier to edit single-camera video because you can use one stream to make your edits. With multiple cameras, you have to synchronize the video from each camera and edit from there. Surround audio is a different proposition if there are different sounds from the back and the front. For editing, Adobe Premiere Pro is now capable of syncing and editing VR video, but it’s still a task that is best done with lots of time—especially for rendering the video so it can be played on a VR device sitting on your face—and you still need to create sound in a 360-degree surround sphere. Audio programs are capable of that as well, but they still take a lot of time to make audio sound realistic. And VR by its very definition needs to be realistic.

AR, on the other hand, only takes two things to create: a great programmer who can take different data sets and put them together for a developer to implement them for the viewing device. The device can be a phone or tablet, but the real AR will come when there are things that can project like a heads-up display does in front of our eyes.

The future

In some ways, the future is here. Google Glass paved the path for us, but it was an early implementation of what AR can do. We talk about VR and AR sometimes as if they were indeed ready for us to implement into our projects tomorrow. A good reality check shows us that we’re several years away from having a real, cost-effective path to making VR and AR available to most learning audiences out there. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, is on record saying that he believes AR will be bigger than VR. And he may just be right on this. VR won’t become a platform that’s usable in mainstream applications until we can get rid of that thing hanging on the front of our faces. Holodeck, here we come!

From the editor: Start immersing yourself in the evolution of VR and AR technology this month with The eLearning Guild

It took years for mobile and cell phones to turn into smartphones, two or three more years for eLearning designers and software vendors to figure out where those smartphones fit into strategies for learning and performance support in the workplace, and two or three more years yet for mobile learning to become an accepted channel for learning and development. VR and AR will have their own evolutionary arc and will also require several years to become routine practice.

Learning Solutions Magazine and The eLearning Guild were key players in moving mobile learning forward to become routine practice. This magazine has been bringing you articles to help you relate VR and AR to learning and learning strategy and to instructional design, as well as to some of the challenges developers face. We will continue these in even greater depth all during July, and there will be more of this type of material through October.

At the end of July, The eLearning Guild is presenting Realities360 in San Jose, California (July 26 – 28). The program will show you what AR, VR, and other enhanced reality technologies can do for learning. Realities360 is specifically designed to allow you to immerse yourself in these technologies, and to engage in conversations that enable you to put those experiences into the context of the work you do in training and development. Read these session descriptions to gain an idea of the breadth and depth of this conference: