Today's educators are constantly looking for new interactive tools to engage students. Virtual Reality (VR) has been recognized for some time as a key technology that can bring the educational experience to the next level, while Extended Reality (XR), which incorporates VR and Augmented Reality (AR), has become the new cutting edge of learning.
Types of Realities
Educators should understand the differences between the three technologies that have emerged--VR, AR and the hybrid Mixed Reality (MR), which are increasingly being referred to under the umbrella term “extended realities.” While each of these create a virtual environment to some degree, the applications of each are unique.
VR offers complete immersion in a closed virtual environment using a head-mounted display.
Mixed Reality (MR) incorporates features of AR and VR. MR superimposes a virtual experience into the real world, freeing itself from the fully immersive VR environment. This allows users to interact with both real-world and virtual elements. Mixed Reality is usually viewed with head mounted displays and smart goggles from mixed reality device manufacturers such as Microsoft, Magic Leap and Third Eye.
AR, VR, MR - Capabilities and Limitations
To illustrate the differences between the three technologies, consider the scenario of medical students who are dissecting a human cadaver as part of practical or simulation experience. Using VR, students can manipulate a digital representation of a human body in a closed environment, interacting with fellow students and faculty as avatars. Although useful, communication in this closed environment is somewhat less optimal as compared to an in-situ procedure, and image quality will not be exactly on par with reality.
Augmented reality can be useful to medical students, as smart glasses can overlay information on a cadaver and demonstrate such things as where to make incisions or how to identify organs. Communication with an instructor or fellow students is a bit more natural with AR. That removes some of the challenges of VR, but does not help the institution avoid the procurement and maintenance of real human cadavers, nor is it adaptable to virtual learning situations due to 2D imagery viewed on 2D devices.
With mixed reality, students donning smart goggles can fully explore a virtual representation of a human cadaver in a real clinical setting while interacting with fellow students and instructors within the same environment.
Why MR Represents a Breakthrough for XR in Education
VR had been the main XR technology used in higher education until recently, but several limitations have emerged. VR often requires the extensive use of connected cables. VR also uses a closed environment. Mobility can be severely limited, and it can pose liability issues as users can easily bump into walls or stumble over things they cannot see in the virtual environment.
Furthermore, a significant number of users are prone to dizziness and nausea after extended VR use. Therefore, VR is best suited for relatively short intervals per session, which is not well suited for extended educational demonstrations.
AR also has limitations. Although it offers mobility, it has limited capacity for users to work with both real and virtual elements. In addition, it offers a fairly narrow scope of vision (for example, if a 3D image is visible when looking at a book, you can only see it if you are looking directly at the book.)
As MR mitigates many of the challenges of both VR and AR, it is finding adoption in universities for educational instruction. New York's Fordham University uses VR in business classes to help build students' soft skills, with professors remarking how the simulated environments give students experiences over just learning.
Professor Lyron Bentovim noted that:
"Your brain actually assumes you’ve experienced the simulated environment, and it brings educational concepts to life for students. When they leave class, they don’t say, ‘We learned about negotiating today’; they say, ‘I negotiated today,’ or, ‘I led a business meeting today.’"
The University of Queensland has an extensive immersive reality “Community of Practice” in which faculty from across several different disciplines collaborate to share knowledge and best practices for XR across the university. So far, it’s been implemented for students of architecture, engineering and medicine.
To learn more about mixed reality applications in higher learning, please refer to our case study highlighting how a leading nursing school incorporates XR apps via Microsoft's HoloLens 2 to improve student diagnosis learning.