Metafocus: Overview of Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality in eLearning

Written By

Matt Sparks

November 23, 2016

“The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

—William Gibson

Welcome to the newest monthly column at Learning Solutions Magazine: a column dedicated to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed/modified/merged reality (MR), games, and gamification as they relate to eLearning, corporate training, education, and instructional design. In this first column, I’ll provide an overview of VR and MR within the eLearning industry. Future articles will address AR, gaming, and other related topics.

The future is now

In the popular sci-fi book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the year is 2044, and nearly all education, business, and social interaction takes place in a virtual world, accessible anywhere on earth by anyone with a VR headset and a haptic suit. With amazing new VR products and software now hitting the market seemingly every week, we’ll likely see Cline’s envisioned reality much sooner than 2044. (Editor’s note: It’s already arriving. See Pam Hogle’s November 8 article on Cydalion, and any of the many articles on The Void, which makes full-body use of haptic feedback.)

What are VR and MR?

Definitions of virtual and mixed reality vary depending on whom you ask. Most commonly—and how I’ll use the terms in this column—VR denotes a fully immersive world experienced through headsets and earphones that block out the real external environment (The Lawnmower Man, Avatar, The Matrix). MR, experienced through special glasses, overlays holographic images onto the real world around us (Google Glass, Minority Report, Iron Man). MR is sometimes referred to as AR, but AR can also refer to an entirely different subset of devices, software, and apps. To confuse the matter further, some people use the terms VR, AR, MR, and even XR to refer to all of these related technologies together as a group. Regardless of what comes before the R, each technology offers different benefits to instructional designers, trainers, and educators.

Because of the ability to fully immerse viewers into a new perspective, VR has often been described as an empathy machine. I’ll add that MR is a productivity machine, due to how information, communications, graphics, animations, etc., seemingly exist within, interact with, and provide context for the physical world as we go through our day. Due to this heightened empathy and productivity, VR and MR are powerful learning tools, though we’ve only just begun to see how either technology will be used in instruction and education.

Device capabilities

The Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR, Vive, and Oculus Rift VR headsets are currently available to consumers, with still more devices slated to hit the market in the coming months. Developers have produced many VR games, videos, and other entertainment content. A growing number of businesses, factories, scientists, and educators use VR devices, too. Although far less capable, the Google Cardboard VR viewers and platform are of particular interest to educators because of their low price and widespread accessibility. A smartphone inside a free cardboard viewer creates a powerful learning experience, accessible by anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world.

Although VR has been around for decades, the technology improved exponentially over the past couple of years, contributing to the recent craze and rapid rate of adoption. VR devices can now read faces, track eyes, and translate hand and body movements into the virtual world. The headsets are light and comfortable, the experiences immersive and fun. Sounds feel real. Haptic devices add physical sensations, and startups launch new devices every month. You can physically walk around in virtual worlds and 360-degree videos, just like in Star Trek’s “holodeck.” VR experiences can create intense empathy for the characters and people depicted. Students can repeat training and educational experiences cheaply, quickly, and indefinitely until lessons sink in.

As for MR, devices include the Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap, Meta, and Lumenora. Google Glass, briefly available in 2013 and 2014, was discontinued in early 2015 with promises to continue developing the project. However, this market is still extremely nascent: Many of the devices are clunky, they’re only available in commercial markets, and little content and software has been created yet.

MR devices use the same basic technology as VR. The screens on MR headsets are transparent like eyeglasses, however, and the devices also contain tiny room-scanning cameras. This allows holographic images and information—shown in the glasses’ field of view—to respond to and appear to interact with the real-world people, objects, and environments surrounding the wearer. Some fascinating MR projects also incorporate AI to empower users with relevant information and analysis on the fly, without users having to stop what they’re doing to look up information or physically turn away from the task at hand. These benefits already provide profound value to many professionals; trainers and educators will soon find them indispensable as well.

Use cases

Although VR is not for everyone (yet), many professionals do already use VR for the following training, teaching, and general use cases:

  • Training—flight, combat, police, skilled trades, athletics, emergencies (e.g., fires or oil spills)
  • Psychology—eliminating phobias such as fear of public speaking
  • Classrooms—exploring new places and times, safely playing with combustible materials, students in different geographies
  • Space—NASA astronaut training, support for completing technical tasks on board the International Space Station (ISS)
  • Medicine—surgery rehearsal, diagnosis, studying human anatomy
  • Design—architecture, automotive, aerospace, aviation

A few industries also use MR for similar training, teaching, and other use cases, including:

  • Space—NASA astronaut training, support for completing technical tasks on board the ISS
  • Medicine—surgery training and rehearsal, diagnosis, studying human anatomy
  • Design—architecture, automotive, aerospace, aviation
  • Industry—factory supervision, inventory management

Summary

This is truly an exciting time, as the VR/AR/MR industry has only just begun to explore the profound implications for learning professionals. VR is already changing how we learn: improving it, democratizing it, making it more fun. MR will build on what VR can do and take us light-years beyond what we currently imagine. Ernest Cline’s future as described in Ready Player One—of education, work, and social interaction experienced almost entirely in VR—is already well on its way.

How have you used VR, AR, or MR as a teaching or training tool? Let us know in the comments below.

Additional reading and videos

See Mark Zuckerberg demonstrating VR’s awesome capabilities, or watch a HoloLens engineer training demo.

Other VR/AR solutions for training include zSpace and Compedia.

More articles about VR in corporate training:

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