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Augmented Reality: An Introduction

The 2011 Horizon Report, an annual collaborative project of the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, listed augmented reality as an emerging technology that will likely be widely adopted in higher education in the next 2-3 years. What is augmented reality (AR) and how can it be used for educational purposes?

The Horizon Report defines augmented reality (AR) as "the addition of a computer-assisted contextual layer of information over the real world, creating a reality that is enhanced or augmented." EDUCAUSE points out the differences between virtual reality and augmented reality: augmented reality "does not create a simulation of reality. Instead it takes a real object or space as the foundation and incorporates technologies that add contextual data to deepen a person's understanding of the subject." [PDF

You may be familiar with current applications, such as using a digital map that also indicates locations of nearby restaurants, or even watching a football game where the first down line appears on screen. Also referred to as blended reality or mixed reality, AR allows for the layering of computer-generated text, graphics, and audio over a real-world object or image.


View of Mountain Range Augmented with Information about Distances and Elevations

Image credit: Nick Ludlam

Possibilities in Online Education

Augmented Reality is not a new technology, having been used for many years in consumer-focused applications, such as entertainment and marketing, but is gaining interest among educators. It's getting easier and less expensive for anyone to develop augmented reality content through the use of rapid development software applications and mobile devices. How can AR technology be leveraged as a tool for learning?

  • Student control: Learners can interact with AR content on their own, articulating dimensional models and selecting information that is relevant and interesting to them.
  • Interaction: AR has the capability to bring real world objects and places to the student, allowing interaction in a way that has not been possible without travel. According to, "the ability to annotate real life objects and scenes can be the crucial link between learning and real life experience."
  • Content generation: Both instructors and students can participate in content generation using basic software applications and by contributing to existing information collections.
  • Mobile learning: The use of smartphones and tablet computers as devices for learning is increasing. Students can now access full courses via their phones and many AR applications are developed with mobile devices in mind. ParisAvant is one such app that allows users to view city locations through their cameras, with superimposed historical images of those locations.
  • Situated Learning: AR allows for learning to take place in real world contexts. Imagine the use of this technology to provide technical instructions for computer equipment or to overlay interactive anatomical charts over a clinical patient.

Experience Augmented Reality in Education

Museums: Explore the Augsburg Display Cabinet, a 17th century museum prototype, at the J. Paul Getty Museum using a form of AR that brings a 3D model of a real world object to your location. Follow the prompts to interact with the model and layered information.

Games and Simulations: MIT's Scheller Teacher Education Program is using AR to create "simulation games that combine real world experiences with additional information supplied [to students] by handheld computers." Read about Environment Detectives, a game that makes use of GPS devices, interviews, and data collection to solve a toxic spill mystery. 

Books: Watch this demonstration video of an AR book called The Search for WondLa. Notice how the author's webcam allows him to experience the 3D features of the book on his computer screen.

Models: Use your webcam to experience the Wind Turbine and Solar Energy AR "digital holograms" presented on GE's Ecomagination site. View the "how it works" video then follow the 5 simple steps listed to launch the models on your computer.

Mobile Apps: Layar is one of many AR mobile applications available for your smartphone. The developers also sponsor design classes where students use AR for art projects.

That's me and the Solar Energy digital hologram from GE.

Leading the Way

As with most new tools, there are both benefits and challenges associated with the use of AR. And in the field of education, where AR is still new, the exploration is just beginning. It will be important for educators to stay focused on how augmented reality applications might enhance the learning experience for students, and resist the temptation to get caught up in the technology as just the "latest thing." Here are a couple of resources you may want to follow as this trend increases and gains momentum.

  • Augmented Reality in Education – WikiEd: For more information and examples, as well as a thorough list of references.
  • Augmented Reality in Education – Educational Applications of AR: A blog from two instructional designers at Eastern Kentucky University. Read more about their work with AR, view example projects, and review their list of research that has been published on the topic.

July 28th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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