Augmented reality (AR) is a new technology for many eLearning developers. Although the ability to access AR from mobile devices has made the barrier to entry for using AR relatively low, for developers it can be overwhelming to know where to start. In this article, I will introduce some of the basics.

What is augmented reality?

Very broadly, augmented reality is technology that brings the virtual world into your real world in a way that would not be possible otherwise. Augmented reality complements the real world with a layer of digital data—objects, sound, and even haptic features. An AR-based app displays the user’s actual environment, and then any 3-D asset (digital data) can be added on screen for further interactions.

Although AR itself is not about learning, you could think of AR as a component for blended learning strategies and for performance support. Augmented reality can support learners as they become familiar with new environments and terminology. It can provide performance support within the 5 Moments of Learning Need, especially at the time of performance. Another application is to support collaboration and remote assistance between technicians, customers, and subject matter experts in problem-solving and repair activities.

Augmented reality differs from virtual reality (VR) in several significant ways. The main difference is that the AR user maintains contact with the real world. Sighted users can see their surroundings but additional information, objects, and graphics are also visible in the display. None of the objects are there, at least not in any physical way. The object or information is on a digital layer that appears on top of the learner’s view of the world.

Augmented reality applications, in combination with artificial intelligence, are also in development for users with low vision or no vision, primarily to assist in navigating the world. The augmentation is a layer of audio and haptic feedback that alerts the user to overhead obstacles, tripping hazards, and items nearby that they could walk into.

Why use AR?

Augmented reality is a way to provide users with information and job aids related to the task at hand. There are already numerous examples of applications in training, medical education, and industry. Augmented reality can reduce errors and cut the time needed to assemble complex products. Technicians wearing augmented reality “smart glasses” or heads-up devices can access a “floating” display. This allows them to look up diagrams and access instructions without having to interrupt their work in order to consult documents or turn to a computer screen. Voice commands prevent further interruptions, saving time and preventing errors.

As instructional designers continue to explore AR, the continued growth will have a positive effect on the contributions that learning and development (L&D) make to the enterprise.

Challenges to the use of AR

Learning and development applications have been a little late to the party. Instructional designers and developers in general have not developed the skill sets needed to create AR applications. The use cases for AR in L&D are not often well-understood, business leadership has not shown much interest in adopting the technology to training, and identifying the return on investment (ROI) of time and money required to shift appropriate instructional content to AR delivery has not been easy. Yet the value of applying AR to learning is known, at least subjectively. The key is translating subjective value to quantitative benefits.

Known benefits of AR for L&D

What does AR offer in the way of benefits that can be quantified? There are a number of these, and while they can be proven to a certain extent, nailing down the numbers for particular cases is a challenge.

Most of the frequently-cited benefits of AR technology to learning are related to learner engagement, retention of knowledge, and transfer of skills to job performance. Many of these, including the use of VR and AR together in learning experiences, seek to improve learner engagement as a means of strengthening recall, although it is not a given that better recall will result in better performance on the job. "Learning by doing" is also felt by some experts to be the most effective way to acquire procedural knowledge or skills through direct experience of carrying out a task—when the learning involves near transfer. This also relates to the effects of being completely involved in an activity (the "flow state") and overlearning on engagement, learning, and recall over time.

There are other practical benefits that arise from the use of AR technologies, some of which are more readily quantified:

  • Training on demand
  • Cost savings (travel, equipment requirements, onsite costs)
  • Faster time to proficiency
  • Consistency
  • Better human performance analysis

Getting started with AR

One way to assess the use of AR for your situation is to apply the BUILDS framework suggested by Chad Udell and Gary Woodill in The Shock of the New. This is a systematic approach that will help in building a business case for AR.

There are many technologies and SDKs (Software Development Kits) for creating AR applications. These include ARKit, Unity, Unreal Engine, Vuforia, and ARCore. Most AR technologies offer "boot camps" and courses that will help you get started developing applications.

Events sponsored by The Learning Guild, such as DevLearn and Online Conferences, also offer sessions that focus on design and development of AR applications.