An interesting and fairly recent technology that is starting to be appropriated for educational purposes is Augmented Reality (AR). It is an augmentation of our ‘real’ physical word displayed on the screen of a computer, laptop or mobile device. By taking the live input of a webcam, the computing device and AR software then processes and analyses the incoming data, adding additional digital layers (computer graphics) over the top, displayed to the user onscreen, and all in real-time. In this way, AR is an enhancement of reality and not a replacement, which is in fact an older technology Virtual Reality (VR).
AR apps can be downloaded for mobile devices, such as Wikitude for iphones which displays information about the user’s surroundings, essentially acting as a live computer generated information guide on the street level.
By relaying information from an online database(s), from the ‘cloud’, and attaching it intelligently and accordingly to what is around us, AR offers what seems like almost limitless augmentation possibilities. One intriguing example of how AR apps can quickly innovate building on what has gone before is Streetmuseum, created by the Museum of London where locations around the city are augmented on the user’s phone with historical information.
Wordlens is an app for iphones, offering language learning opportunities as it reads and translates text that the phone’s camera is pointed at both ways (presently between Spanish and English and French to English). CamTranslater is a similar app for android phones, although with fifty different languages, and is also being marketed at travellers for on-the-spot translation of menus, signs, product packaging etc.
These types of AR apps as well as the ‘street modifying’ apps mentioned above, can be used by students when out and about, resulting in the everyday world around us presenting many exciting opportunities for learning. In this way, and in terms of materials, reality and its digital augmentation is the material and springboard for language learning activities.
There is some interesting discussion of AR and English language teaching on Nik Peachey’s and David Read’s blogs:
I have collected various videos from YouTube and published them within a Delicious stack, showing Augmented Reality in use within education and early moves into ELT.
One or two particularly stood out for me, and which are a different use of AR from the mobile apps mentioned previously. Paper printouts can be tracked by a computer’s webcam, and a digital image then appears on-screen (again in real-time) augmenting the user’s immediate reality in front of the computer. An innovative example of this for beginner level English language learners has recently been developed by ‘Letters Alive’. Here, a teacher or students use a number of cards, which work with AR software and webcam to build sentences in any way that they wish. On screen or on an interactive whiteboard, the cards produce colourful augmented animated images also with sounds, and according to the sequence of the cards within the sentence being built, real-time changes will occur.
It is worth noting here that augmented reality has a definite ‘wow factor’ at present, being primarily visual in nature and often provoking surprised and excited reactions from students and teachers alike. This is due to the technology not yet being ‘normalised’, a term used by Stephen Bax in his paper ‘CALL – past, present and future’ (2003), where he points out that new technologies take time to become commonplace and no longer seen not as exciting or even ‘technological’ in nature. He states that teachers when technologies are new, will often view them as being on the fringe, and as a result they are marginalised and left outside of the ELT classroom. AR if and when largely normalised, might due to its nature of being able to provide multi-coded information in its combining of augmented visuals, text and audio together, continually provide an engaging and motivating medium for use within ELT.
Augmented Reality as ‘Augmented Realia’
I have been looking at potential uses of AR with beginner level students, and have set up a working system using my laptop, the free version of Google Sketchup (which allows for the creation of 3D objects) and a free AR plugin for Sketchup from ARmedia. The advantage of Google Sketchup is that it provides access to thousands of user-created 3D objects. Everything from everyday objects, people and animals, transport, buildings and national monuments. Any of these objects can be ‘dialled’ into Sketchup and by activating the ARmedia plugin, the augmented image will appear where your printed card is held.
Here is an example of a piece of furniture in action:
And here is a famous building, Osaka Castle:
It seems to me, that in this manner such AR objects could be described as digital realia or ‘augmented realia’. Instead of having to carry ‘real’ physical realia to the class, teachers could instead access a huge resource of augmented realia, stored on flash drives, the computer or online in the ‘cloud’. This could serve many purposes. For example, for vocabulary lessons, or having to simply to describe these objects and any associated contextually or culturally related language. Realia is seen as bringing the real world into the ELT classroom, and similarly, augmented realia could be viewed as virtual representations of the real world ‘imported’ into the classroom digitally. The concept of digital realia is not new. Brian Smith argued that what he termed ‘virtual realia’ could ‘improve the quality and availability of culturally based, authentic EFL materials’ (1997), which he envisioned being delivered over the internet. Augmented realia might be less limited than physical objects, as regardless of size they can be quickly resized, and being weightless are easily manipulated. In addition, the ARmedia plugin allows for multiple objects on different cards to be shown at the same time, allowing for comparisons to be drawn by students, and they may themselves source or create their own objects within given tasks using Sketchup.
In a recent discussion with David, we thought about how this technology could be used with more advanced learners. We concluded that any ‘AR media’ should be seen within the context of a multi-media approach to English language teaching and learning. Additionally, AR would be better as with any media, if used where the teacher feels it is actually appropriate. It could certainly activate interest in learners and drive discussion in a similar way to pictures and photos. For instance, students could use an AR virtual globe and through manipulating it, pinpoint areas for discussion that are pertinent to the topic at hand. As objects within Sketchup can be annotated with text labels, in this example the virtual globe could be labelled through student collaboration.
An example of a virtual realia globe in action:
Bax, S. (2003) CALL – Past, present and future. System 31 (1): 13-28
Smith, B. (1997) Virtual Realia. The Internet TESL Journal. 3 (7)