Toolkit: It’s 2019—Get Ready for More AI and VR!

Right under our noses, changes have been occurring left and right in the eLearning development world. In fact, these changes have been accelerating and will continue to do so in this new year. Let’s take a look at what happened to eLearning development tools in 2018, and what you need to consider in 2019.

Virtual reality is here

Many of us received an Oculus Go or similar headset this past year. New VR applications are popping up every day. In 2018, for the first time, several of my reviews focused on VR tools.

In July and August, I wrote about Modest3D (Figure 1), a true VR tool that gives you lots of options, all without coding. The company, Modest Tree, also provides custom VR services at extra cost, so if you really need a full VR experience you’ll want to consider this option.

A woman using a virtual-reality headset and hand controllers.

Figure 1: Modest3D

In October and November, I covered Adobe Captivate 2019 (Figure 2) and its new VR capabilities. While it doesn’t offer as many options as Modest3D or CenarioVR (discussed below), it gives you some very nice options at no additional cost to the tool. Oh, and there’s no coding needed.

This inside of a control booth.

Figure 2: A screenshot from a Captivate 2019 VR

In December, I discussed CenarioVR (Figure 3), a new offering from Trivantis, the makers of Lectora. It’s a separate product at a reasonable price. It makes it easy to create VR experiences without any coding. It provides more options than Adobe Captivate’s free added VR feature, but less than the more expensive Modest3D tool.

A person standing outside.

Figure 3: A screenshot from a CenarioVR

All of the above tools, as is true of most virtual reality experience development tools, require that you start with 3-D models, photos, or videos. There are many cloud-based applications that let you create 3-D models, such as Vectary, SketchUp, Photoshop, SketchFab, Blender, and many more. If your virtual environment is replicating the real world, and it’s possible to photograph or video record the actual location, it’s simpler to use any of several low-cost, 360-degree cameras, such as the Samsung Gear 360 ($90), to shoot 3-D photos and videos.

Like most endeavors, creating a virtual reality experience benefits from careful planning. Yes, you can create linear experiences—such as going down a rollercoaster—with no interactions possible (except to turn you head to look around), just as you can create eLearning as a set of linear slides. However, virtual reality benefits enormously from letting learners make choices. Is that box safe to pick up and open? Does the person who just walked into the office exhibit any signs of potential trouble? In many cases, choosing one path over another and seeing the consequences in 3-D or virtual reality can be much more effective in helping learners avoid problems in real life than standard eLearning.

If you really want to go all out with virtual reality and the no-coding tools like those above won’t suffice, you will need to become or hire a programmer who knows Unity 3D and learn C# and C++. However, in most cases you won’t need to be a programmer to develop good VR learning experiences anymore.

Like every other approach, consider VR to be one of your options—to be applied only when it will work better for the learner than a standard video or other approach.

Artificial intelligence, chatbots, and robots

Artificial Intelligence. Can a machine really be intelligent, or is it simply possible to make it mimic a human being so well that it’s hard to tell the difference? The debate rages on and will not abate anytime soon. However, we are seeing breakthroughs. From the original Eliza program that was created at MIT in 1964 to Alexa, Siri, and Cortana, we are now seeing an explosion of AI-based voice interfaces, even on everyday appliances. Two years ago IBM’s Watson computer platform was used to build an AI teaching assistant named Jill Watson at Georgia Tech. Not only did Jill fool the students that were taking a course on AI, it ended up answering questions on forums with 97% accuracy. When the students learned that Jill was not human, they were impressed and excited rather than responding negatively to the information.

Harbinger, the makers of Raptivity, introduced a new product last year called Quillionz. It purports to use artificial intelligence to analyze the source material developed by subject matter experts, and glean from it as many quiz questions as you wish. Currently, Harbinger provides human instructional designers to review and edit the questions that Quillionz generates. This leads to finessing the Quillionz AI algorithms over time. I predict that one day, perhaps soon, the questions it generates will require little or no editing.

For now humans make better analysts and editors, but computers are superfast and becoming faster every day. They can fool the best of us into thinking they are very intelligent, and they don’t need to rest.

Chatbots are another form of AI that is becoming harder to distinguish from humans. Most commercial websites now offer a way to ask a supposed “representative” a question, which in most cases is not human. The chatbots are becoming very human-like in their responses. When the chatbot reaches a point where it can no longer help, you might see it post, “Hey, that’s a good question, but it’s a little outside my area of expertise. Is it OK if I pass you to my buddy, Bob, who can help you on this?” Bob, of course, is a real human who happens to be next in queue to assist customers.

Even phone assistants that are clearly computer-generated are become much more like humans, so when they pass you to Bob on the phone, you may never have realized it was a computer that was just talking to you. Last year Google revealed a very human-sounding phone assistant at its I/O conference, and attendees were genuinely shocked at how real it sounded.

Chatbots are a hot topic in learning. Margie Meacham and I will be presenting on the use of chatbots within eLearning at the Learning Solutions 2019 Conference in March. Many who take eLearning are sometimes frustrated that they can’t easily ask ad hoc questions, as they can of an instructor in a classroom. Chatbots can help improve learner satisfaction by providing a service very much like the ones that you currently see on websites that try to get you to buy products and services.

Robots are now appearing in many places. Giant Food, which runs 500 supermarkets in the mid-Atlantic area (there’s one across the street from me) is introducing Marty the Robot in each of its stores. It will roll around the store, answer customer questions, and eventually perform other tasks such as clean up spills or sort inventory. The most interesting aspect to me is that it will learn over time and become ever more useful, just like humans.

The crux of all this is that companies will save money by hiring fewer people to perform tasks in stores, on the phone, and online. We are seeing the advent of driverless cars and trucks, and we’re already seeing the probability that human truck drivers will no longer be in demand.

While companies do this to increase their profit shares, we as learning professionals can take advantage of the benefits that AI, chatbots, and other “intelligent” machines offer to increase how people learn. 2018 proved to be a big turning point. As 2019 unfolds, I look forward to reviewing even more breakthroughs and tools that will help us provide better learning experiences.

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