New technologies have been steadily changing how students of all ages learn. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced educational institutions to embrace virtual learning, many were already taking a step beyond that and incorporating virtual and augmented reality (AR/VR) into their programs. What might have once seemed more like entertainment-focused technologies, AR/VR have proven themselves as the next useful tools in teaching, learning and creating new career paths.
If projections stay on track, the global spending on educational AR/VR is expected to rise from $1.8 billion to $12.6 billion over the next four years. Meanwhile, the International Data Corporation (IDC) released a report indicating that the pandemic has fueled an impressive forecast of worldwide expenditures on AR/VR, which are expected to grow from $12 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion by 2024. Those numbers point to a clear sign that AR/VR will be essential to learning and working. They also indicate that these technologies will not just be used in one sector.
Both future and current health care professionals are already being immersed in the technologies—from completing spinal surgery to training at a high-tech facility, such as the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Davis Global Center , which has AR/VR and holographic technologies among its many offerings. Transportation, retail, manufacturing , tourism and just about any other sector can somehow benefit from the technologies. Engineering is also a major player in harnessing the power of these innovative technologies.
With all signs pointing toward a significant increase in AR/VR use, it invites exploration into why these technologies are so beneficial in the classroom, how educational institutions are incorporating them, and what the future of engineering might look like.
Benefits of AR/VR in the Classroom
From kindergartners to post-secondary students, AR/VR helps engage students, helps them better understand advanced concepts, and boosts creativity. (Image courtesy of Tierney.)
Throughout the educational journey, a lack of focus and engagement can easily rear their ugly heads. Whether a college student trying to balance a heavy schedule and navigating early adulthood or a primary student who is easily distracted, AR/VR is a way to put learning directly in front of them. The essence of these technologies encourages the user to be engaged with whatever the lesson is while eliminating external stimuli. Instead of a traditional fact-based, auditory method, this visual approach often is more engaging, thus leading to a better understanding of the subject matter since students get to experience it.
Learning through experience is especially important when on a career path that requires extensive training. Simulated real-world environments offer a more cost-effective way to teach, as well as provide real-time feedback. When it comes to complex theories or topics, the chance to visualize the concept often leads to enhanced comprehension.
For teachers, AR/VR learning tools offer a way to provide a more personalized learning experience. Since not all students learn the same way, these technologies enable tailoring of lesson plans. That allows students to learn at their own pace as well as teachers to create individual study guides if needed.
Another benefit of AR/VR is that it can help break language barriers. At schools with students from all over the world, that barrier can present a challenge to learning. Many of the available technologies allow for language translation in the software. Eliminating that challenge can reduce associated stresses, potentially leading to better performance.
No matter the age, creativity is an important part of learning. AR/VR offers various ways to boost creativity. When it comes to engineering students, creativity is basically the essence of the industry. Students are training for a career in an industry that is always on the cusp of new technologies. A 2019 study explored the use of project-based learning (PBL) to promote effective communication, increase problem-solving skills, and enhance learning outcomes. Not surprisingly, incorporating VR and 3D prototyping came with positive results that included an increased cumulative project grade for the test subjects, specifically the implementation component of the project, as well as enhanced their engagement and motivation.
Educational Institutions Embracing Immersive Technologies
Across the globe, educational institutions are boosting their AR/VR offerings with grants to enhance remote learning and innovative immersive labs.
University of Hong Kong–Innovation Academy
Built with the mission to inspire students, the recently opened Innovation Academy enables cross-disciplinary collaboration by connecting students to all 10 faculties. This state-of-the-art 2,400-square-foot facility houses separate studios for CAD, AR/VR, and multimedia. It also offers a makerspace with various equipment, including laser cutters, engraving machines, measuring tools, electronic workbenches, and more.
With a focus on bringing together the community and students to create innovative projects, the facility includes various activities to further engage STEM learning, including workshops, student-led courses, forums and a project showcase.
MIT–MIT.nano Immersion Lab
MIT recently opened the MIT.nano Immersion Lab , an open-access facility for all MIT students, faculty, researchers and external users. As its name suggests, MIT.nano is an innovative facility that enables AR/VR users to interact with data. The MIT.nano’s Immersion Lab enables researchers to harness the power of AR/VR. (Image courtesy of MIT/Thomas Gearty.)
Focused on data exploration, the lab incorporates hardware, software and a unique space to create potentially far-reaching new ways to learn, teach and explore. The space is a two-story cube with 28-foot sides furnished with equipment and platforms for both individual and system use. The immersive experience provides real-time or passive motion analysis via an OptiTrack system.
An ideal solution for multidisciplinary research and study, the facility has a variety of added features, including a photogrammetric station for generating 3D reconstructions of spaces and AR creations and a Lenscloud system featuring 126 cameras and custom software that enables 360-degree photogrammetric scans of human bodies or human-scale objects. Other features include a backpack computer, VR headsets, editing software, green screens, and more, all of which enable users to interact with data and generate content.
From entertainment to health care and engineering, MIT.nano creates new possibilities to interact with designs, better visualize how the inner workings of an architectural design will work, or create a toolbox to help take 3D modeling to new levels.
University of Michigan–Augmented Tectonics
When it comes to architecture, seeing a building site or the finished product is essential but not always possible, especially during a pandemic. The University of Michigan found a way to eliminate that problem with its Augmented Tectonics course. Using AR/VR, students can experience a construction site virtually and interact with 3D models via a mixed reality app or VR headset. The program also allows students to tackle new challenges, such as trying out a different material or explaining how to assemble a structural component.
Along with continuing to bring more AR/VR experiences to students on campus, or at home, the university is also ensuring that students interested in the technologies can learn more about them. Professor Michael Nebeling worked with a team at the university’s Center for Academic Innovation to develop three online courses dedicated to extended reality (XR), which is a blend of AR, VR, and mixed reality (MR).
Suitable for anyone interested in the topic, the three courses make it possible for people of any knowledge level to learn the basics or delve much deeper into the subject. The three courses are XR, XR design, and XR development. XR design focuses on physical and digital prototyping, a potentially beneficial technique in the age of rapid prototyping. The advanced course, XR development, is aimed more at people wanting to develop and program XR. Anyone who takes all three can earn a certification.
Although focused on manufacturing and helping find solutions for the growing skills gap, Purdue University’s Skill-XR may easily lend itself to other industries. Though many companies are looking at AR/VR for training, it can be complex and costly to program. Skill-XR was developed to provide a learning experience that minimizes those downsides. Purdue University’s Skill-XR uses AR, VR and MR to share information in an effort to close the skills gap in manufacturing. (Image courtesy of Purdue University.)
The experience incorporates AR, VR and MR into one solution that is platform-agnostic, which means that it can be used on any device or technologies available. This new solution would enable a new employee to train on a machine with the aid of AR glasses, which would provide graphic overlays and instant feedback. Along with a focus on manufacturing, Skill-XR is being real-world tested by various companies and community colleges with the hopes that this hands-on learning method could be easily adapted to engineering concepts.
The pandemic has changed how students learn. When it comes to having to share designs and concepts, it can be a little tricky when everyone is learning remotely. UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Designs found a way around that with the InsightXR project. An example of design option visualization in the InsightXR platform that is being developed at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. (Image courtesy of King St. Development in Toronto/Frank Gehry.)
Testing began in the fall of 2020 for InsightXR , which was one of the recipients of the Berkeley Changemaker Technology Innovation Grants. Students and faculty working remotely can now synchronize and collaborate with each other’s 3D models thanks to a new app. The first “reality” being tested is AR. Architecture students can explore different design choices with AR, including incorporating overlays with real-world designs. The app also allows for feedback and generates interaction highlights.
The Future of Engineering
While these examples only touch on the many ways that AR/VR is being explored, it seems to be a certainty that the many facets of engineering will somehow include it now and moving forward. From CAD to assembly to training and quality control, AR/VR offers engineers, designers, and others the ability to better explore parameters and visual designs and to generate data that may have once been unimaginable. With so many educational institutions realizing its potential, it means a future workforce that is better adaptable to new technologies and ways to tackle new challenges.
Foto: Purdue University is developing a prototype system to provide workplace training using augmented reality. (Image courtesy of Purdue University/Jared Pike.)