Monday, 22 November 2010

Augmenting reality - technology is going invisible

Here's my article, just published on Trainingzone as the headline story, exploring how augmented reality and mobile technology promise to radically improve learning effectiveness. Would value your comments and feedback.

The pace of technological innovation continues to surprise. This week reports suggest that, in theory at least, it will be possible to create new materials that divert light around themselves to render objects invisible. The magical cloaks of Harry Potter (also in the news this week), no longer seem so far-fetched.

The technology of today, however, is also striving for invisibility. It's getting smaller, more integrated and embedded into the world around us. As a result the way in which we interact with it is changing in fundamental ways. This Christmas, one of those must-have gifts is Kinect, the add-on for Microsoft's X-Box game console. Kinect drops the need for a physical controller meaning the user can play a game simply by waving their arms, hands, legs or any other body part for that matter. The reported levels of engagement this generates are profound as the suspension of disbelief, so core to game-play, is deeper and more sustained.

This gesture-based control is all around us, on our smartphones, tablets, touchscreen laptops, TVs and as things develop, on any appliance or surface that needs a communications interface of some sort. But that's not all, technology is becoming wearable in the form of heads-up display glasses that let you watch movies on what feels like a virtual 52" TV screen, cameras that record everything you say and do, storing it in your 'life-cache' or streaming it straight to Facebook for all to enjoy. All this breaks down the barriers between real and virtual worlds.

In fact we can 'augment reality' with applications on our phones that can automatically annotate the world around you (as seem through your camera lens) with useful, contextualised information that helps make better sense of your surroundings and so inform the choices you make. While many of these applications (Layar and Google Goggles are two such examples) are entertainment-oriented and aimed at promoting social sharing or marketing, the additional potential for learning and performance support cannot be ignored. For example, a neat barcoding technology called QR codes, can be used to tag a physical space and with the simple process of pointing your camera phone at the code can automatically call up information stored online that is relevant to that physical place. This is a great way to help new staff navigate around their new workplace, to provide specific health and safety advice for instance or explain how shared equipment works (removing paper jams from the printer perhaps?). Direct links to short 'show me' videos or photos can quickly answer problems or questions and save time for all concerned.
As technology becomes transparent – invisible even – we can seamlessly integrate it into our everyday actions, providing valid access to supporting information and guidance. For example, BMW created an intriguing proof of concept video demonstrating how a car mechanic can use heads-up display glasses to guide them through maintenance procedures on a car. The benefits are tremendous as it means a mechanic can service a wider variety of models and handle what are increasingly complex engine systems. It reduces the pressure for "just-in-case" training and emphasises "just-in-time" support. Much of this is not conceptually new. For example I was involved in a similar project in 1992 for Iveco to design a very similar performance support system for truck mechanics which used video to show how to dismantle, fix and reassemble engine systems. What is different is that the technology now is faster, connected, cost-effective, mobile, even wearable.
The smartphones and games consoles of today set new precedents for those of us working within learning and development. We can start to break out of the relatively static classroom and design learning support that is location-aware, tapping into shared expertise at the time it has most context and give immediate support on actions taken. This immersive experience is more memorable, actionable and potentially removes the issue of training transfer back into the workplace – there is no need to transfer as you are essentially already there.
The design implications are significant and challenge the more structured approach to instruction. Indeed game design offers a powerful motivational model that encourages repeated practice and mastery. Levelling up and achievement systems successfully compel us to try and better ourselves each time. Some of these game environments are becoming incredibly rich and sophisticated, and are hugely effective learning environments, accurately simulating specific real world scenarios.

It is no coincidence that the military, medical and aviation fields are leading in this area given the life and death nature of their respective fields. But as the technology becomes more accessible, this is spilling into other areas such as construction, health and safety, customer service, performance management, contract negotiation and other real-world, complex interactions that many more of us engage in. These simulations don't necessarily have to involve high end 3D graphics and complex artificial intelligence. By using technology to augment the real world around us, we can even more realistically recreate specific situations to test and train responses, working together with the support of other peers and experts, even if they are not physically present alongside us.
This is not to say this is entirely for the better. There is always a need for balance and blend. But being able to economically extend our support beyond the natural constraints of the scheduled training event in a classroom can deliver far more effective learning experiences and deliver significant performance improvements to the individual and organisation as a whole.