Technology - Reality check

12th February 2010 at 00:00
There are ways of blending the real world with virtual information. The latest technology is easy to use and can enhance lessons

Augmented reality (AR) is becoming a hot topic for technologists and teachers. 3-D projectors attracted a lot of attention at the BETT show this year and smartphones such as the iPhone offer a host of applications that can do everything from shooting virtual mosquitoes to finding the nearest cashpoint. So what is AR and what can it offer?

AR blends the real world with virtual information. This could mean using your webcam to view a 3-D virtual character on your table, or seeing information about the nearest restaurant when you look through your mobile phone camera.

This is sometimes called "mixed reality", suggesting that it is halfway between virtual reality, where everything is virtual, and everyday reality, where we don't view any digital information.

Broadly speaking, AR applications fall into two categories: marker-based and location-based:

- Marker-based approaches use physical markers printed on to paper and can be easily recognised by a webcam or mobile phone camera. They can be anything from a simple outline of a shape to a barcode. By pointing the camera or webcam at a symbol you could trigger a link to a particular website, or see a 3-D object superimposed over the image.

- Location-based applications rely on sensors in your handheld device, such as GPS (global positioning systems) and digital compasses to work out where you are and which direction you are looking in. The application can use this to work out which information to show you. This could be your nearest train station or the virtual mosquito you are trying to shoot.

So what are the possibilities for using AR in the classroom? Location-based technology is a powerful way to support interactive learning and give pupils access to digital information anywhere, any time.

Imagine visiting a castle and being able to view images of what it would have looked like 500 years ago overlaid on your mobile phone screen, or seeing detailed information about the mountain range in the distance when you are on a field trip.

Printed markers could be placed into handouts or textbooks and read with a mobile phone or webcam, giving pupils access to 3-D images or quick links to useful resources.

There are many products available to teachers. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has released a set of AR resources, which use markers to allow pupils to interact with myriad virtual objects, ranging from moving biceps to mixing metals.

Two of the more popular applications for smartphones, Wikitude and Layar, offer users the chance to build AR "guides". This means that pupils can build a guide to their local area, based on historic fact or on fiction, and upload this to be shared with a real-world audience.

The explosion in popularity of mobile phone applications, or apps, over recent months sees hundreds of possibilities for teachers to bring AR into their classrooms.

Apps such as Pocket Universe offer star maps relative to your location. Pupils can pick up a phone and instantly see where a planet they are learning about is at that moment.

Of course, there are issues to consider before bringing AR into the classroom. The hardware capable of running AR applications can be costly and places technical demands on schools' resources.

Lastly, as with any technology, it is important to ensure that the use of AR is firmly rooted in learning and teaching activities and not just seen as a fancy gizmo to get pupils' attention.

Kieron Kirkland is a researcher at education research and development charity Futurelab.

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