Mobile Platform Based Augmented Reality for Education

Ashu Bhatnagar August 21, 2017
Almost all major tech companies have recently announced strategic focus on Augmented Reality with plans laid out for this year and the next. Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft have focused on AR in their respective annual events. There is a buzz of activity among the many smaller players who have custom AR platforms and are offering niche solutions to various industry segments. In the field of education too, AR has started taking hold. Already a total of 5% of US teachers are using AR in schools. 20% of district administrators feel that training on AR has to be a priority this year. While these numbers seem low at first glance, technology trends indicate that these percentages are set to increase. According to a research by New Jersey Institute of Technology, the AR device market is expected to reach $659M by 2018. You can see the complete infographic here. There are many research sites that project an exponential growth of AR / VR from 2017 to 2021 and beyond. Most of these predict a CAGR of more than 65%. If we keep aside these research projections, the sheer potential of this technology for learning is just immense.
Why AR
Given the attention AR has received, one wonders what is changing that is driving this focus. After all AR has been around for some time now. First, let’s revisit why people think AR is of use at all. Augmented Reality is a technology that allows enhancing “reality” (as seen on a device screen) by virtually adding objects, models or information in a form that is visually rich. This can have countless applications, right from industrial applications on training to providing learning content to students. As an example, a 3D model of an eye superimposed on live camera pointing to a book page depicting anatomy of an eye, makes the learning process interactive, interesting and exciting. By allowing the student to explore parts of the eye by showing or hiding them or flying in and around the 3D model of the eye, indeed takes learning to a whole new level. Similar conclusions can be arrived at if we look at the possibilities in other industries. But then we’ve known this all along. So what is changing?
What is changing – Evolution of AR Platforms
All giant tech companies have an AR platform. Google, Apple, Facebook & Microsoft have all made significant investments to bring AR capability to their devices & platforms. Google’s Tango is an AR platform that needs compatible devices to work. The device costs will likely be prohibitive for mass scale applications in education and if Google is to be a mainstream platform for AR, it has to do what it did with Chromebooks in schools and colleges. We need low cost affordable devices that do the job. This looks like a (Day)dream for now, given the cost of “Tango compatible” devices. Microsoft is not a yet prominent device player with a “mobile” AR offering today. Although we see it making a bold attempts with the AR glasses that are far more portable than HoloLens we saw earlier. We will really have to wait and watch on where they are going with this. Apple’s ARKit holds promise. It’s AR on your iPhone or iPad as long as it has A9 or A10 at its heart. It provides for some simple real world tracking and lighting capabilities. While it is a good start, Apple will need to do much more in AR capability. According to TechCrunch ”Apple is the best-placed of all major tech companies to potentially drive mobile AR.” Facebook, like Apple, is using smartphone camera as the base solution. That’s a whole lot more mainstream thinking than using costly strap-on hardware. As new platforms emerge, mobile AR is beginning to make its presence felt. Native support for AR on mobile devices will mean lower software development costs and higher AR performance.  All of this is possible with technology already available today in smartphones. This makes the proposition very exciting.
For AR to rule in education technology, a few things must happen
Firstly, we need a low cost approach that leverages today’s technology. We are in an era where cameras in smartphones are competing with DSLRs for most practical common scenarios. Today’s phones have the computing power and memory capacity to handle the processing required for complex AR applications. Secondly, educators and technologists need to sit together and tap into the immense potential of AR in achieving student learning goals. If AR is to be launched in schools and classrooms, the dependency on AR devices has to reduce significantly. AR device costs and consequent support costs will put pressures on already thin school or college budgets. A much lower cost entry point is via smartphones or tablets that students either own one or have access to. This is where there is hope. With the introduction of mobile based AR platforms from Apple and Facebook, others are likely to follow suit with cost effective solutions.
AR Use in Education
There are many technologies available today that can help build visually rich AR applications. A large number of use cases can use 3D models to explain concepts. 3D models can be combined with camera functionality to deliver content not possible in a print or digital eBook. While traditional pinch-zoom & 3D models helps in visual representations, the content needs to be interactive beyond simple 3D. A fourth dimension is needed that allows the student to perform actions and learn from outcomes. Other potential use cases include educational games, experiments or activities triggered by book page contents. All of these will help in making content interesting and interactive with feedback mechanisms built in. There is unanimity that the potential of AR is huge. In the near future, low hanging fruits are in the form of applications consumed in tablets and smartphones at home. Formal courseware evolution along with classroom adoption will take longer. With mobile based AR technology improving and getting cheaper, a natural outcome will be higher adoption. There are a large number of good use cases that can be tapped to create great content without the need of expensive AR hardware. It’s time to bring AR to mobiles and hence in the hands of the students! It’s time to make learning even more fun! Get in touch!

Ashu Bhatnagar

Head of Delivery at Magic Software, is engaged in building exciting new content and technology solutions for education.