Revolutionizing Reality

Revolutionizing Reality

How virtual and augmented reality enhance learning and build empathy in educational contexts 

Two skyscrapers seen from below

Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture.

There is quite a bit of confusion about the difference between augmented and virtual reality. Both seem to change the way we perceive our natural environments, but in different ways. From there on, it is not always clear-cut how they can enhance learning. Online learning has changed the face of training and closed the gap between the natural and the virtual world.

Where online learning made it possible to learn without having to set foot in a classroom, virtual created a virtual environment presented to our senses in such a way that we experience it as if we were really there. Not so much for augmented reality which makes us see the physical classroom we are in, but adds virtual layers to it, combining both realities.

Still sounds a little confusing? That might be the case since talking about virtual and augmented reality is a bit like dancing about architecture. Let’s switch to a different approach and discover some real world applications of VR in the context of learning and development.

Building empathy and capturing lost heritage

UNESCO could definitely be delighted about the possibility virtual reality offers to capture moments and locations in history, before deterioration or vandalism could erase them. Like, for example, historical religious statues in the Middle East that were recently blown up. If captured in VR, those locations could still be visited.

VR also helps to build empathy if used as a perspective taking tool. By creating immersive conditions, one could put on VR glasses and experience realistically what it is to be homeless, to suffer from autism or to work in dangerous conditions. In a recent UNHCR film, Clouds over Sidra, policy makers at Davos were taken on a virtual trip into a Syrian refugee camp, enhancing their understanding of the realities displaced people are dealing with.

The ILO Training Centre in turn is actively exploring the added value of using VR in educational contexts. We tested out how basic and affordable VR devices, such as Google cardboards, could be used particularly for training labour inspectors and more generally within the broader field of occupational safety and health.

We even moved to the next stage by participating in the development of a real VR experience. The Maritime Virtual Tour is the virtualization of a ship to guide labour inspectors on a maritime deck. Participants put on VR glasses for an immersive learning experience not only simulating real life situations on the ship but even adding all kind of default situations an inspector could encounter.

A very useful tool in our everyday lives

Unlike virtual reality, which requires you to inhabit an entirely virtual environment, augmented reality uses your existing natural environment and simply overlays virtual information on top of it. It adds elements from the virtual world, such as images, sound and touch feedback, to the real world. Doing so, AR enhances the things we see, feel and hear. It can become a built-in feature of glasses, headset or digital contact lenses.

Picture yourself picking up a sushi box at the supermarket while your glasses project info on ingredients and nutritional values on the packaging. Or imagine yourself strolling through a museum where paintings on the walls talk and interact with you. Rubens just came back to life.

A less entertaining but potentially lifesaving use of augmented reality is in the field of healthcare. The projection of organs by holograms can help medical students to study anatomy or surgeons to prepare for complicated operations. It can also assist surgeons within the operating room, where precision is of prime importance. AR can project extremely realistic 3D images of tumors on the body, localize veins or project the patient’s vitals within the operating doctor’s field of view.

Blurred colored lights

The United Nations “Not a Target” campaign which targets millennials and pushes them to act for change, uses Facebook’s Camera Effects Studio tool. It allows civilians and humanitarian workers to record and share their on-the-ground stories adding filters and augmented reality features. It immerses the audience into their environment and as they speak, their words scrolling down the screen.

Augmented reality literally brings new dimensions to learning. It may entrap the attention of students as well as motivate them to study. AR can help you to learn how to play piano, by projecting the notes directly onto the right keys. Or it can project dangerous science experiments and the explosive combination of molecules in front of your eyes without risk. Augmented reality can render in 3D models anything that is hard to visualize, explain or imagine in students’ minds.

But the most common example of augmented reality you probably know about are the filters you can add to pictures on Snapchat. Or Pokémon Go, just for the record.

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Originally published in the Future of Learning magazine.