So here we are in late 2019, and the technology at our fingertips for learning and development (L&D) is far beyond anything I could have imagined 10 years ago: Chatbots, AI, machine learning, and of course virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. Augmented reality (AR) has really grown, thanks to mobile AR and our insatiable need to have the latest and greatest devices and apps.

We have all seen something built in AR. But just because AR is not new doesn’t mean it’s ready for the bright lights of the L&D stage. Before deciding to implement an AR-based eLearning strategy, we must ask the hard questions, starting with: Is augmented reality right for you?

The ‘cool’ factor isn’t enough

Deciding whether AR is right for you means looking at a few things and asking some questions.

As much as I would like it to be, the answer won’t be “yes” for everyone. Using new technology just because it’s cool can be a tough sell, though some leaders love “cool.”

Even these leaders also love getting the best value for their money. And making sure their learners learn something. These are in no particular order and the list is not exhaustive, but the point is that even with cool new technology, the questions and expectations are the same as with any learning project: Content, investment, effectiveness, audience, learning theory, and more make up the cornucopia of things that you will need to consider when planning.

Once you have all those things and you would like to look further into using AR, there are a few unique things to consider for this medium.

Does AR make sense for your learners?

AR is great at getting content in front of your learners. It allows them to explore and engage with the content in a more interactive way than most static eLearning.

But you need to be honest with yourself about whether you could get the same results without using AR. Seriously consider whether you are able to create something in AR that is above and beyond what you could make in an eLearning module.

The vast majority, maybe 80 percent, of augmented reality interaction is done through mobile devices. This means that learners will have to hold the phone or tablet throughout the experience.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous now, and for many populations of learners, the mobile experience is not a barrier. Consider your learners and your learning goals, though: Does the experience work this way? Better yet, does it work well?

Be honest in assessing this. I wasn’t, in some of my earlier attempts, and it didn’t go well. Make sure that your learners can leverage AR in an effective way for your learning goals.

Once you decide if and where it makes sense, you have to think about the kind of experience, AR or MR.

Understanding AR and MR

When speaking of augmented reality, people often discuss mixed reality as if it is the same thing. They can sometimes be synonymous, but there are notable differences.

  • AR provides a digital overlay of information onto a real-world item. It is usually an image or a video that allows for some basic interaction. Think eLearning buttons to open a new layer or slide. These types of actions can be created in AR. It is less of an immersive experience and more overlaying content to an environment or object.
    The real-world person (the learner) can interact with the overlay information, but that information does not recognize the real world, nor can it influence or change it. An object exists and the user can see a desk or wall but cannot hang a virtual item on the wall or place it on the desk.
    An example of AR training or performance support might be diagrams and instructions that appear on a wearable device to assist a worker assembling complex machinery.
  • Mixed reality also overlays digital information onto a person, place, or thing. A key difference is that in MR, the digital content and real-world content interact and influence each other. Within an MR experience, objects are recognized and used as part of the experience.
    Now imagine the same 3D object as before—only this time it recognizes the floor, your desk, and the wall. Choosing your desk places the 3D model in a fixed location as though it should have been there all along.

An overview of common AR terms is available in “DoF, FoV, Anchors, and Markers: Demystifying Common AR Terms.”

Augmented reality is easier to create than mixed reality, which leads to the next consideration.

Try it out

Each of these images includes a target for an AR or MR experience. If you download the Zappar AR app, you can:

  • Experience a 360-degree immersive image, with Figure 1
  • Add content to a selfie, with Figure 2
  • Find a flat surface, place the car from Figure 3 on it, and use all four interaction points to explore MR

Experience a 360-degree immersive image

Figure 1: An immersive culinary demo

Add a Halloween-themed DevLearn logo to your selfiesFigure 2: Add a Halloween-themed DevLearn logo to your selfies

Place this car on a flat surface and interact with any or all of the marked interaction pointsFigure 3: Place this car on a flat surface and interact with any or all of the marked interaction points

Technical skills required

Not all L&D teams have the technical skill set needed to pull this off. The skills that got you your job as an instructional designer, consultant, trainer, or even eLearning developer probably didn’t include AR development.

There are options that allow for creation of AR content with a WYSIWYG editor on the cloud that can be developed and shared with relative ease. But sooner than later, you will want the more advanced features. For that you or your team will need a particular set of skills: Can you code in JavaScript? C+ or C#? Typescript? Do you know anyone who can? If not, these costs—both monetary and time—will have to be factored in. While you can build basic AR experiences without that knowledge, the more interactive immersive experiences such as mixed reality require these skills.

Explore AR more deeply

This article has barely scratched the surface of what you can do with AR in eLearning, and the considerations you should look at when exploring augmented reality as a potential option for your learning design. We can incorporate other AR features, like facial tracking and 360-degree immersion, for example.

If you want to learn more about when and how to best implement AR for eLearning, join me at DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo. I am presenting a day-long pre-conference workshop, “Designing and Developing Immersive AR Experiences for Learning,” where you can get up to speed on the how, when, where, and why of AR. We will build an AR portfolio throughout the session, showcasing relevant and useful examples. Along with a portfolio of examples that you build, you will leave with a process on how to plan, storyboard, and prototype immersive learning experiences. I’m also presenting a concurrent session on getting started with AR. DevLearn is October 23–25 in Las Vegas. Hope to see you there.