Does Augmented Reality Augment Learning? | Part 2 of 2 on Augmented Reality

A couple weeks ago I posted How to Augment Your Reality with AR – a look at AR in the Royal Ontario Museum’s temporary exhibit Ultimate Dinosaurs and a discussion with Ken Reddick from Meld Media about how it was created.

In this earlier post I established that AR is really cool – bringing dinosaurs to life is the just about as cool as it gets – but now I want to know if it helps visitors learn about the objects it augments.

I am aware that you already know the answer:

Yes AR helps augment learning when it’s created with learning in mind, and no it does not when it is used for its own sake (because it’s a shiny new piece of technology).

Yes you are very smart for knowing the answer. You’ve heard this with every new piece of technology that comes along – it is effective if it’s used strategically. But what does that really mean? Let’s dig a bit deeper. When is AR used in museums purely for its cool factor and when is it used to educate? What’s the difference and does it really matter?

The Cool Factor

Image of Royal Ontario Museum Augmented Reality poster

The ROM’s Augmented Reality Ultimate Dinosaurs Poster

My example from the last AR post is actually good one to use to distinguish the cool factor vs. augmenting learning. I would say that the cool factor are the posters plastered all over Toronto where the dinosaur featured jumps out of the poster fully formed and awesome thanks to the AR app. This is cool. Not really educational, but cool.  The AR Dino Viewer, which is used to see what dinosaur bones look like with flesh, augments learning. It takes the object, the dinosaur bones, and adds a layer of information. Visitors learn about what a dinosaur would look like to scale and can even click on different body parts to get additional information about them.

But there is another distinction here. One was created as an advertisement and the other was created as a piece of the exhibition. Both are important, we need to get the visitor to come to the exhibit to experience the educational AR, but one should not be confused for the other and the distinction should be clear in both the creation and use.

Another cool factor example is the AR in the Laguna Beach 7° exhibit A Moment in Time. The exhibit featured photographs of people that, when the AR app was used, would start moving. Dancers caught mid-pose start to twirl, a girl captured swimming underwater begins to swim away and so on. This is really cool but what do we learn from it?

I should mention here, as a side note, that you could consider a third category of AR – art. This is where AR is applied to art by the artist him or herself as an extension of the piece of art. The AR in A Moment in Time could be considered an example of this.

Augmenting Learning

What goes beyond the cool factor of AR to become educational? Augmenting learning occurs when AR helps the visitor gain a deeper understanding of the object it is applied to, or conversely helps users understand the museum object being applied to the outside world (al la The Museum of London’s StreetMuseum which overlays historic images of London from the museum onto the user’s view of the modern day street they are physically standing in).

AR used in this manner solves a problem for educators – there has never been enough space in an exhibition to put all of the contextual informational and educational resources that museum educators would like to. AR allows this information to be applied and does not take up much real estate in the exhibition (just a marker to launch the AR app). It is the addition of this contextual information that helps the visitor gain a deeper understanding of the object that makes the AR educational.

Does it Really Matter if AR is Cool or Educational?

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. What are your museum’s goals in creating AR? Do you want to capture a younger audience? Promote social interaction? Raise the museum’s profile? Because the purely cool types of AR can do this. Just read Cherry Thian’s paper Augmented Reality – What Reality Can We Learn From It? The paper documents a visitor study exploring the use of AR in the Asian Civilisations Museum’s temporary exhibition Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor and His Legacy and shows how these goals were achieved.

If your goal is to promote learning then AR is a great tool to provide additional contextual content. Just don’t confuse the cool factor with the ability to augment learning about the object.

Is AR Appropriate for All Objects?

AR makes a lot of sense for objects like dinosaurs. Heck, it’s not too much of a leap from what is already being done with dinosaur displays – we (museums) use plaster casts of bones, in order to create an articulated skeleton to give an idea of the size and scale of the dinosaur. So the ROM is just taking it one step further and adding flesh to those bones using AR.

But what about art? Some purists may argue that nothing should get in-between the original authentic object and the viewer to spoil their transcendent experience; these purists would surely object to the use of AR for art. I disagree. When used effectively, AR can act as a bridge between an artwork and the viewer for those who want it. For those who don’t it’s invisible! So it does not disrupt anything.

What do you think? Are there any specific objects, or types of objects, where AR would not be appropriate?

Selection of AR Reading

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