The eLearning Guild’s inaugural Realities360 Conference took place in San Jose, California, July 26 – 28. Nearly 250 eLearning professionals attended this limited-seating event. The theme was “Immerse Yourself in Learning.” Wow, did I ever get immersed! With plenty of opportunities for learning professionals to dive into new concepts, skills, and virtual experiences to prepare for the future of learning, I came away energized and ready for the challenges to come. Session speakers, keynote speakers, and panelists, all pioneers in the creation and delivery of these new technologies, brought their knowledge and tools to share with the eLearning community.
Some attendees noted parallels between this conference and The eLearning Guild’s first mobile learning conference, mLearnCon 2010. Back then, training and development professionals questioned whether mobile devices really had a role in eLearning, and if so, how they should plan and prepare for the future of mobile eLearning. In 2017, mobile devices are everywhere, but now the professionals have similar concerns about the possibilities posed by the emerging technologies surrounding virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and enhanced realities (ER).
As it was seven years ago, when the questions were about the availability and suitability of mobile devices as learning delivery tools, today there are issues about the headsets, controllers, and other hardware required for delivering the new content. Although there are some inexpensive VR solutions, such as Google Cardboard, the hardware for delivering a truly immersive interactive experience is presently cumbersome and expensive. Further, the tools for creating VR and AR content are often too complex for content creators to quickly learn. Optimistically, we hope that something like Moore’s Law applies to these technologies, leading us rapidly to a future with untethered virtual experiences for learning. Will the L&D community be ready?
We all aspire to create and deliver the best learning experiences with the most appropriate tools. Knowing what innovators are working on helps managers plan for certain possibilities, while it encourages content creators and learning developers to prepare their own skill sets for the future. To that end, 2017 Realities360 included a wealth of immersive opportunities in just three days.
There’s an app for it!
The Realities360 mobile app by Float allowed attendees to create their own personal schedules, access the conference agenda, view venue maps, and leave feedback on sessions. (No more paper evals!) Perhaps the most exciting feature of this app was in the AR experiences available by simply watching for AR markers posted throughout the event and then viewing them through the app.
Every attendee received a Google Cardboard headset for use with their phones, and many put them to use with the Google Cardboard app and various demos as examples of affordable VR experiences. Those who loaded the Cardboard Camera app created their own VR experiences.
There were four general sessions over the three days. Industry experts gave the keynote speeches both in the opening general session on Wednesday and in Thursday morning’s general session, while the last two were a departure from the keynote format. During the opening general session, “How VR Is Changing the Future of Content,” keynote speaker Maxwell Planck described his own journey from Pixar, where they created stunning animated films, to his move into virtual reality with Oculus Story Studio, then to the present and the future.
He presented his views on how VR is changing the future of content and on the greatest challenge to VR, the adoption curve, which I will discuss in a later article.
Figure 1: Maxwell Planck, technical founder of Oculus Story Studio, speaking to a rapt audience during Wednesday morning’s opening general session
“What Does the Future Hold for AR, VR, and Mixed Realities?” That was the title of Thursday morning’s general session by Barry Downes, managing partner of Suir Valley Ventures. To guide us toward an answer, he shared how AR and VR technologies are evolving and emerging and where he predicts their short- and long-term evolution will take us. He showed clips from Apollo 11 VR, a documentary of the historic 1969 journey by American astronauts. This is available as an interactive experience using the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. He showed one of the many reviews of this experience on YouTube in which the reviewer was so awed that he broke down in tears, an example of VR as an emotional experience.
Figure 2: Barry Downes, managing partner of Suir Valley Ventures, the keynote speaker for Thursday morning’s general session
In Thursday afternoon’s general session, “Building the Future Together,” David Kelly, The eLearning Guild’s executive vice president and executive director, led a collaborative discussion with the participants exploring how the worlds of AR, VR, and other enhanced realities can integrate with learning and development, defining both the opportunities and the barriers to harnessing the potential of these technologies. Looking forward, they examined what outcomes the learning community needs from these technologies and what they require in resources to make it happen.
Figure 3: Participants discussed and offered their viewpoints during Thursday afternoon’s general session
During Friday’s closing general session, “Lessons Learned from Early AR and VR Adopters,” a panel of four early adopters of AR, VR, and enhanced reality technologies shared their experiences, including both successes and failures. The panelists were: Chad Udell, managing partner of strategy and new product development at Float; Kate Pasterfield, head of innovation at Sponge UK; Marco Faccini, chief commercial officer and CLO at Immerse Learning; and Clyde Matava, director of anesthesia innovation, informatics, and technology at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Figure 4: A panel of early adopters of AR, VR, and enhanced reality technologies
Morning Buzz and concurrent sessions
Early birds brought their coffee to the 13 Morning Buzz sessions, spread over the three mornings of the conference. Each was hosted by one of the session speakers; there was a lot of sharing of experiences and lessons-learned in these casual 45-minute meetings.
The conference organized the 45 concurrent sessions by focus: augmented reality (AR), enhanced realities (ER), and virtual reality (VR). Several sessions folded two or three of these into their presentations, and some sessions included live demos of finished products. Forty-eight speakers participated in the concurrent sessions, sometimes in teams, while a few speakers presented more than one session.
Six concurrent Bring Your Own Laptop® (BYOL) sessions offered hands-on experience using tools for getting started with AR and VR without breaking the budget. I looked in on several of these to see people engaged in creating and testing. When I looked in on Friday morning’s “BYOL: Low-Cost, High-Impact AR Experiences,” everyone was at the front of the room using their phones to scan special images to use in the AR experiences they were about to create. The other sessions were just as compelling. When attendees were in their seats, they were leaning forward to catch every ounce of knowledge floating through the air.
Figure 5: Attendees leaning in to get the most out of one of the 45 concurrent sessions
While I expect Realities360 to be an annual event, for those of us needing to check in with the experts in AR and VR, The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas this October features an Emerging Technologies track. Look for new speakers there, as well as some familiar faces from Realities360 including Destery Hildenbrand, Sherry Larson, and Cindy Plunkett.
Immersion in the Technology Showcase
Leading companies creating AR and VR L&D solutions offered hands-on time with their latest products in the Technology Showcase. Their stations were set up in the ballroom and open for a total of more than 16 hours over Wednesday and Thursday. Participants moved among several stations, where they could shed the real world and immerse themselves in a variety of virtual experiences using the latest hardware, often head-mounted displays (HMDs) and controllers for interaction in virtual scenarios. The eight Technology Showcase sponsors offering these experiences were Float, Indusgeeks, Interactive Learning Experience, Lionbridge, Mutual Mobile, nawmal, TalentQuest, and VirBELA.
At the Indusgeeks station, I went through the Disaster Emergency Response Triage training simulation of an earthquake, attempting to do triage on an injured man while the earth rumbled, sirens wailed, buildings crumbled, and an EMT avatar guided me through the necessary steps (bringing my kit to the gurney, assessing the patient, and attaching the AED). Somehow, I managed to resuscitate him. The most important takeaway was that I became emotionally involved with a real adrenaline rush. I now appreciate all the distractions faced by EMTs in real-life situations. I was not so successful at another station where I allowed a virtual fire to get out of hand in a virtual warehouse. I could have used a little more adrenaline there.
The eLearning Guild provided three additional stations in the Technology Showcase. The Oculus Rift station offered the VR films Henry and Dear Angelica, as well as gaming applications Robo Recall and The Climb. Those who visited the PlayStation VR–equipped station could pilot an X-wing fighter in Star Wars Battlefront, work physics-based puzzles using Tumble VR, or spend time on a hostile alien planet using Farpoint. The third eLearning Guild station used the HTC Vive system with several great interactive experiences, including Slingshot, Longbow, and Human Medical Scan. One participant remarked on Twitter that she tested her fear of heights using the HTC Vive. She said that her heart was racing and her head was spinning, and she was scared—a great example of how VR makes it real.
Figure 6: Attendees tried out immersive experiences in the Technology Showcase
Stepping onto the invisible bridge
Those eLearning professionals who pursue new ways to aid learning are stepping off the cliff at the end of the firm ground of their eLearning experience and hoping there is a hidden bridge underfoot. At Realities360, the keynote speakers, session presenters, and participating vendors effectively revealed the hidden bridge. Now it is up to individuals and organizations to take those important first steps.
We learn best through experiences, and VR and AR can put learners into the middle of scenarios where they experience visual and auditory stimulation and even perform tasks. Using VR and AR, a learner can practice a task repeatedly without using expensive materials or needing to fix damage done (recall the warehouse fire). The classic virtual learning experiences, flight simulators, have been around for many years, but even these are improved by new technologies. However, before a wide range of educators will embrace the huge potential of VR and AR for learning, they will need easier tools for creating the content, and the hardware for delivering it must be less bulky and more affordable.