Augmented reality doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s budget-friendly and amenable to quick development. What’s more, free or low-cost platforms make it easy to use embedded AR markers—or markerless AR—to enhance eLearning content and performance support tools.

Augmented reality enhances—augments—what a learner sees with a virtual overlay. That overlay can be a 3-D model; it can be directional arrows to help a person find her destination; it can be a text explanation, a diagram, even a video to offer performance support, problem-solving help, or needed information.

So much more than games

While many minds immediately go to Pokémon Go! when someone mentions augmented reality or AR, games are far from the only way to apply AR in eLearning; the practical uses for this technology are much broader:

  • An early AR app, Cydalion, offers navigation assistance to people with impaired vision.
  • Though Google Glass was a commercial flop, it’s found a successful niche bringing augmented reality to workers on the job at Boeing and other industries where a “floating display” featuring 3-D models and instructions helps workers become more efficient and accurate in their high-stakes tasks, such as building or repairing aircraft.
  • AR apps are being used by DHL and other corporate giants to streamline packing and loading cargo, including baggage handling at Singapore’s Changi airport, allowing workers to quickly see an object’s weight, loading sequence, and assigned location within the cargo hold.

In short, as Anders Gronstadt wrote, “AR can bring anything to you … AR can make the real world the canvas of any number of simulation-based learning activities.”

What’s an AR marker?

Not everyone in a particular environment sees the AR elements. Even if surrounded by Pikachus and Mimikyus, a person who wasn’t engaged in Pokémon Go! (or who wasn’t using the app) wouldn’t see the Pokémon that players around him were pursuing. Something must trigger the AR overlay to appear. Those triggers can be markerless or use embedded AR markers.

Markerless AR: AR is often implemented via a smartphone app. That app can respond to a beacon located somewhere external to the learner and the phone. To guide new hires around a massive corporate headquarters, for example, beacons can be located throughout the building. An onboarding app can present a new employee with context-appropriate explanatory content whenever the app senses the proximity of a beacon. Thus the app can guide new employees to the lunchroom, remind them of what forms they need to request from the HR office, and even encourage them to introduce themselves to key personnel as they pass those individuals’ offices. Since there is no marker that the user needs to notice and scan, this is considered a form of markerless AR.

Markerless AR is possible without beacons as well; GPS coordinates can serve as a trigger, as can other elements of a physical environment. As with beacons, if the user with the app is in the right area or the app “sees” the triggering element, the AR code will execute.

Embedded Markers: An AR app can also respond to a marker that the user scans from within an app to trigger the AR content. This is often a barcode, QR code, or other 2-D tag or image that is embedded in printed material of some sort: A poster, a sticker, a business card—even printed on a T-shirt or other swag item. In some platforms, the “marker” can be your corporate logo!

The AR app uses the smartphone camera to scan the marker and then implement whatever instructions are attached to that marker. It can display documents, charts, or maps. It can play a video or trigger the appearance of a floating 3-D model or object.

Integrating AR into eLearning and performance support

L&D professionals can create their own AR tools or use off-the-rack platforms, 3-D models, and other components to assemble AR-based eLearning and support tools. The only major limitation on the use of AR is the imagination of the developer. Get those creative juices flowing at The eLearning Guild’s Realities360 Conference, June 26–28 in San Jose, California. Sessions in the AR track include:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a developer or a designer; tech-savvy or just learning—AR-based learning tools are within reach. Whether you choose to use embedded AR markers, markerless AR, or an immersive experience, adding AR is easier than you think.