Augmented reality makes science no object

15th January 2010 at 00:00
But some warn Wii-style virtual world should not replace hands-on learning

Pupils will soon be able to mix virtual chemicals and explore computer-generated organs in their bodies using revolutionary classroom technology.

"Augmented reality" software uses a webcam to recognise special patterns on paper and turns them into 3D objects on a computer screen.

Pupils can move and combine objects with the hands-on applications, with similar ease of use to a Nintendo Wii console.

Its applications include allowing pupils to mix metals virtually with solutions on screen to see how they react or explore the human heart.

The learnAR tool, created by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, went on show for the first time at this week's BETT educational technology conference.

Paul Hynes, who helped develop the tool, said: "The website looks for the funny shape on the paper - called a 'marker' - and superimposes a 3D image on it. For example, it can superimpose the organs of your body on to your chest and they will move with you as you move."

He said schools did not need any specialist equipment to use it.

"It's basically a website," he said. "All the student would need is access to the internet, a webcam and a piece of paper with a particular shape."

Mr Hynes said the technology would captivate pupils' attention and allow them to learn by experimenting themselves.

So far, 10 augmented reality applications have been developed for nine subjects across key stages 3 and 4, ranging from an interactive heart for biology to 3D objects to help explain surface areas in maths.

Mr Hynes said the 10 applications would be sold as a package to schools for a one-off cost of #163;295 and believes a significant number of schools will take up the offer.

"We'd expect at least 500 secondary schools to be using the resources in the next five years, but there's no reason that all 3,000 can't be using it," he said.

Andrew Johnson, part of the leadership team at Tudor Grange School, Solihull, was involved in testing the software. "I found it very easy to use - there's not really a technical aspect to it," he said. "Children learn so fast with computer games, so it's about getting that level of enthusiasm for their academic studies."

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, welcomed the applications but said they should never replace real practical lessons. "Seeing which way blood flows around the human heart on the screen is useful," she said. "But I would not want children to see just the 3D model. There is no substitute for hands-on and minds-on science."

REALITY REWIRED

- Augmented reality was first used in 1992 to train workers at aerospace company Boeing. A display inside a special helmet would highlight which wires needed to be connected together.

- At the same time, the US military began to equip helicopters with "heads-up displays" that showed pilots enemy positions and friendly aircraft over the top of their normal view.

- In the late 1990s, the University of North Carolina began using augmented reality to "see" virtually where their instruments were inside bodies during operations, removing the need for invasive surgery.

- By 2009, smartphones such as the iPhone had adapted the technology for applications and gaming.

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