Posted On November 10, 2016

Think of Augmented Reality, or AR, as an enhanced version of a three-dimensional pop-up book: a compelling blend of physical and virtual imagery in which learners “move about” in the real world overlaid with images (graphics, video, GPS data, blueprints, diagrams, maps, X-rays, you name it) as well as sound.

The point of all this is to improve the learning experience by taking the instructions or directions that have commonly been found in traditional media, like manuals and videos, and spatially transforming them into live, colourful “see for yourself” displays over the real-world objects themselves.

According to many learning experts, AR cuts through the cognitive load and practically eliminates ambiguity. And if you believe the hype, AR promises to revolutionise how we engage with learners across the workplace.

The learning technology “most likely”

Recent research from the Horizon Report, a not-for-profit project that charts the learning technology landscape for educators, rated AR among the most likely to be implemented within four to five years.

Not to be confused with “Virtual Reality,” an experience completely within a Tron-like computer-generated world, Augmented Reality received its name from a researcher at aircraft manufacturer Boeing in the early 1990s. Its origins, however, date back to the 1950s when a cinematographer named Morton Helig developed a machine called a Sensorama.

Helig wanted to create the “cinema of the future” and his Sensorama came very close to succeeding with what we’d now call primitive technology of his day, giving his viewer the experience of riding a motorcycle through Brooklyn replete with three-dimension cityscape and street view, wind on their face, the simulated vibration of a motorcycle seat, even the odours and fragrances of the big city.

The science of AR surged in 1960s when internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland invented the world’s first head-mounted display. This device allowed viewers to not simply watch a virtual surrounding but to immerse themselves within it.

Later in 1975 Myron Kruger, a computer artist, designed an AR system using projectors, cameras and on-screen silhouettes to create a truly interactive environment. And in 2001 AR was the subject of the Hollywood film Cyberman, a movie that may not have won an Academy Award but was important because it told the story of Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor who wore a mobile camera and visual display on his head for two years, from 1994 to 1996. Connected to a computer, the camera showed visitors to Mann’s website what he was seeing, and messages sent to him flashed up on the display he wore.

AR has since been the subject of intense, and expensive, research by Google and Android Phone to name just two large organisations many of us know, and as a learning technology — supported by advances in optical projection systems, monitors, hand-held devices and display systems — it’s gained a strong foothold in industries such as automotive, aviation and medicine, especially surgery, and in instances where the desired learning outcome is proficiency in industrial maintenance or assembly/operation of complex equipment.

Outside of learning, a high-water mark in AR use is in the military where it’s used to turn data into real-time information on a soldier’s goggles — warning of potential battlefield dangers, improving navigation by use of virtual maps and revolutionising communications via two-way 360° camera imaging. Other AR applications already with us include:

  • Combining ancient features onto the modern landscape so that archaeologists can “rebuild” ruins and entire landscapes as they once existed. Similar functionality is also being used in tourism and many museums.
  • Helping architects and engineers transform 2D drawings into 3D animations and letting them “see” through a building’s exterior to view its interior, underground structures, cables and pipes.
  • Improving the user experience of gamers by giving them the ability to digital game play in a real-world environment.
  • Increasing the effectiveness of navigation devices, from displaying directions, road conditions and other information on an automobile’s windscreen to continuously monitoring a ship’s heading and speed when moving through a canal or performing a complex docking procedure.

The uptake of AR deserves special mention in two industries that touch all of us: retail/customer service and sports/entertainment. In retail, for example, AR is already enhancing product previews by integrating promotional print and video to show customers, say, what’s inside a product’s packaging without opening it or how a garment will look when being worn and accessorised.

The future of AR in customer service is also bright. Imagine a customer service representative who can come to you (via a wearable like Google Glass) to “see what you see” and point things out to you in a detailed, visual way to help solve your problems faster and more efficiently.

In sports and entertainment the use of see-through, overlay augmentations is already commonplace on television screens, so much so that we may no longer take special notice of that line across swimming lanes indicating a world record or the play action of a World Cup goal or Wimbledon volley.

Ideal for training and task support

But it’s the application of AR in training and task support that interests us here most.

Studies from several research projects show that when AR is used well, learners are more motivated and learning is more enjoyable. For this reason, when MCI Solutions looked at the AR phenomenon as part of a recent webinar on learning technologies, MCI Solutions director of digital learning and founder of Purple Learning Craig Simon said AR was one of several tools developers were using to “build amazing things.”

“We’re working on a prototype for a car manufacturer. They want their employees on the production floor to be able to walk around a car and hold their device over a door handle, wheel hub, radiator knob — whatever, to understand the technical bits about that electronic door handle and the intricacies of the sensors built into it,” Simon said.

“The next step is for buyers of that same car to be able to walk around a retail showroom with their smartphone, hold it over the car and a piece of relevant information will pop up, or an animation explaining its features and benefits.”

In the same MCI Solutions webinar, a senior executive of a global LMS vendor told how an organisation had developed a mobile AR application to help cabin crew of a major airline learn pre-take off procedures. Using the application, a checklist appears from the position new cabin crew members are at in the aircraft, for example next to the exit door, and all of the checkpoints at that particular model of aircraft’s door become relevant, integral and critical parts of their learning.

For a splendid example of how AR is being used today to assist in, if you will, guided AR mentoring, a short video from prestige auto maker BMW entitled “Augmented Reality – the extension of reality” is available at

Potential downsides

Success stories like these aside, it’s still difficult for many HR professionals to put a finger on how best to adopt AR. That’s because of issues like how to integrate it with traditional learning methods, the often-prohibitive costs to develop and maintain an AR system, and, let’s not be sensitive, general resistance to new technologies.

Like any other new technology the first uses of AR have come from big industries with big money to spend on its development and application. Beyond those, many early uses of AR range from the relevant, like guiding a surgeon through a patient’s frontal lobes, to the seemingly frivolous.

(Nike’s 2011 campaign in which Gen Y customers photographed GPS-connected runners in Vienna to catch the most “flashes” from their reflective jerseys and thereby win the “game” springs to mind.)

To be sure, if a gimmick serves to get a person interested in something that has deeper meaning then it may have relevance but in learning it’s absolutely essential that AR applications are grounded in sound pedagogy. And as with every new learning technology, whether it’s learning by augmentation, in the cloud or using holograms, it isn’t the technology that matters. It’s what learning and productivity professionals do with it.

Quite simply AR is a tool that can dramatically shift the location, timing and “stickiness” of learning, skills development and performance support — a tool that enhances learners’ perception of reality and helps them apply what they’re learning directly to the material world.

And all this with a range of entirely new, diverse perspectives that have never been implemented before. Ever.

So here’s where we leave the last word on AR in learning to MCI Solutions’ Craig Simon: “As technology continually connects with physical life, we get more and more types of digital simulation to add to our learning. I’m excited about the ability for big stores, for example, to be able to do their induction and safety training on the floor where learners can walk around with an Augmented Reality-enabled device to engage with the physical environment and learn something right then and there,” he said.

“Augmented Reality is allowing us to connect learners with compelling content when they need it, and that’s exciting.”

MCI Solutions webinar recordings are available here for you to view. If you’d like to hear when our next seminars and webinars on current and emerging L&D trends are running, join our newsletter community here.