Metafocus: Convergent Technologies in eLearning

I’m currently taking courses at both Udemy and Udacity that are teaching me virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) development using the Unity game engine. The courses are effective, enjoyable, and economical, and I plan to take many more. On the surface, that sounds like no big deal. But think for a second about what technologies have combined in the past few years to make a VR/AR massive open online course (MOOC) a quotidian reality: VR-ready laptops with powerful CPUs and GPUs, broadband internet (mine is lightning-fast fiber optic, perfect for videos and games), digital cameras, 4K screens (and better), cloud computing, and, of course, VR headsets and AR glasses.

VR and AR themselves were each exciting, cutting-edge technologies on their own a few years ago, as were artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), 3-D printing, blockchain, robotics, drones, nanobots, gene editing, and many other emerging technologies. To be sure, they still are, but what’s even more exciting and powerful is combining these various technologies in novel ways. Thus, these technologies have progressed from emergence to convergence.

As technologies are created and adopted, they go through an emergent phase followed by a convergent phase, often followed by rapid and widespread use in multiple, disparate applications. For example, digital cameras, small touch-screens, and cell phones converged to become smart phones, but these same technologies also converged into cars, home security systems, and VR headsets. In each case, the countless component technologies combined into applications where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The convergence is so seamless we think of each of these various devices as single technologies now. That is, we don’t say, “Can I borrow your car with a rearview camera, interactive dash display, and voice-activated roadside assistance to go to the grocery store?” Instead, we simply say, “Can I borrow your car to go to the grocery store?” (The answer is yes, but only if you bring me cookies.)

I’ve attended many technology, VR, gaming, and education conferences over the years. In the past year, I’ve noticed more and more sessions devoted to the convergence of various emerging technologies. For example, AI is really good at finding patterns in large amounts of data. IoT devices create large amounts of data. Thus, IoT sensors, such as RFID trackers, are often combined with AI software to analyze data and reach useful conclusions, such as how to improve inventory and logistics costs. Similarly, people are using machine learning (a type of AI) to rapidly improve complex additive manufacturing (a form of 3-D printing) designs, saving both money and time. Those examples are a good start, but just how far can we take this idea of convergence?

Let’s say you’re an eLearning professional at a large cookie factory, and you’re looking at ways to use VR headsets to create training modules and games for your workforce. Maybe you’re also looking at ways to employ AR glasses to improve worker performance on select tasks, say, with detailed instructional videos and other relevant information, accessible at any time.

The VR headsets and AR glasses would collect large amounts of data on both the users and their environments. Thus, you could use AI to dig through that data and return useful information that can inform you on how to improve your training modules and also inform the workers and their supervisors on how to improve the workers’ performance. Engineers could use this data to identify ways to improve operational efficiency, perhaps by employing exoskeletons, robotic arms, and autonomous forklifts to assist the workers in lifting pallets of cookies. The autonomous forklifts and robotic arms would use digital cameras, IoT sensors, and AI to maneuver safely and accurately. Replacement parts for the robotic arms and other machinery could be printed on 3-D printers. Safety and compliance data—gathered by the AR glasses and myriad IoT sensors—could be stored in a blockchain for transparent and immutable records, accessible by food safety inspectors and auditors. Ideally, all of these devices and software applications would seamlessly communicate with each other in real time. Training employees on all the additional technologies will require still more VR and AR training modules.

The simple idea of using VR or AR for a seemingly limited eLearning training module ultimately triggers the application of many other convergent technologies, that in turn leads to the use of still more convergent technologies, and so on, in an ever more powerful upward spiral. If all this seems too large, complex, and expensive for your organization, wait a year or two. The size, complexity, and costs are decreasing at exponential rates.

Virtually every industry is now starting to experience something like the example above, where many, perhaps all, emerging technologies converge into a single “something” that’s one part hyper-efficient process, one part self-improving machine, and one part eerily-intelligent computer controlling it all. Kevin Kelly calls this “something” the Technium, and Ray Kurzweil calls it the Singularity. Less optimistically, in The Terminator movies, they called it Skynet. I’ll leave it to the futurists and sci-fi writers to debate the long-term implications. In the short-term, however, the benefits are already abundantly available to any organization.

The moral of the story: if you’re thinking of using an emerging technology such as VR or AR in your eLearning agenda, that’s great! But think bigger. Learn about other emerging technologies and find creative ways to combine them into your products, projects, and initiatives.

The results may lead you to create a 3-D printed, autonomous training drone with robotic arms that communicates in real time via an interface on your AR glasses. When you do, please tell it to bring me cookies. I like gluten-free chocolate chip.* (That’s my favorite example of convergent technologies that are very easy to incorporate into everyday routines.)

Additional resources

For inspiration on emergent and convergent technologies, check out Amy Webb’s 235 Emerging Tech Trends for 2018 report

*As of the writing of this article, the author has not yet had his dinner. This may or may not have influenced themes within article.

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