You have probably seen the disbelieving news reports — or perhaps even spotted a teen or two glued to their iPhones in search of the fantastical creatures cropping up around them. It’s no secret: the augmented reality app Pokemon Go is sweeping the nation. What’s interesting, though, is how the Pokemon Go app is catching on just as augmented reality is shifting from science fiction to an important educational tool. Times Higher Education, for example, reports that, on a university level, nearly a third of students weigh tech facilities heavily in their college decisions — and more than a third are interested in enrolling in virtual lectures. We’re at a watershed moment in augmented reality and virtual education; here’s how apps like Pokemon Go are leading the way.
First popularized in the 1990’s, Pokemon is a media franchise that centers around fictional characters called “Pokemon.” These characters are imbued with special powers and are collected by the human players, called Pokemon trainers, who wage battles between their Pokemon.
Many of the users of the Pokemon Go app were enthusiastic Pokemon fans during their youth, millennials who were trading Pokemon cards with their friends during the 90’s and early 00’s. Others are encountering the Pokemon franchise for the first time. The app brings Pokemon into the 21st century by keeping many of the original elements of the franchise — like the beloved characters and the concept of battling — and updating them by using today’s technology to make the franchise more interactive than ever. The update has paid off; the app is the biggest of the year, with a daily average user peak of 21 million.
Here’s how the app works: Using augmented reality technology, your phone’s GPS, and your phone’s internal clock, the app overlays the fictional world of Pokemon onto your real-world surroundings. So when you look at the app on your phone screen, you may see the character Pikachu next to the entrance of your local library, or hiding in the alley behind your house. The goal of the game is to find Pokemon by exploring your city or neighborhood with app in hand — your phone will vibrate when a Pokemon is “nearby.” You capture the Pokemon by throwing “Poke Balls” at them, and then you meet up with other app users to battle with your Pokemon. These battles take place at designated spots called “gyms,” which are often famous landmarks in a city like statues, parks, or notable buildings.
Pokemon Go would not be such a sensation if it didn’t utilize the concept of augmented reality (AR), or computer technology that changes or enhances our perception of reality. In the app’s case, a user “sees” Pokemon (through the phone screen) interacting with the user’s real, physical surroundings. The physical, mental, and social benefits of an AR game like Pokemon Go are pretty huge. Unlike a traditional computer game or mobile app, Pokemon Go encourages people to get out and get moving, explore their own cities, and interact with their neighbors.
Educators can harness the immense popularity of Pokemon Go and other AR games for unique learning opportunities. For example, navigating through their neighborhood to find Pokemon can help students build map reading skills, while the hunt for Pokemon far and wide gets students’ hearts pumping — it’s physical fitness masked as fun. What’s more, Pokemon Go appeals to many students who otherwise shy away from traditional phys-ed activities like track and kickball (think of them as the video game crowd). AR apps like Pokemon Go feed these students’ love of gaming while keeping them active.
Pokemon Go is just the beginning. Many AR apps work by allowing users to scan a physical object — like a book — which then triggers some kind of content to pop up on the user’s screen. There are tons of applications for augmented reality like this in the classroom. As Patricia Brown writes at EdSurge, “Augmented reality apps connected to content can create mind-blowing learning experiences and endless learning possibilities. These type of learning experiences really speak to the needs of visual learners.”
Aurasma: This app uses advanced image recognition software to pull up related content whenever a user scans a physical image. For example, a teacher could use Aurasma in conjunction with traditional math flashcards. Whenever a student scans a flashcard with a certain math equation on it, a video of the teacher explaining the equation in more depth would pop up.
Anatomy 4D: An app that uses AR and other technologies to help students explore the human body in intricate 3-dimensional detail. Users scan certain targets printed out on paper, like a heart, that then allow them to zoom in and out on organs and even feel the pulse of a heartbeat.
Quiver: With Quiver, coloring pages come to life. Students color in the pages and then scan them with their phones, and they can watch as the colored objects on the page become animated. Quiver just launched an app focused on learning capabilities called QuiverEducation, which uses many of the same elements of the original app for topics like biology and geometry.
Augmented reality apps are proving especially useful in online and distance education. For example, inMediaStudio, a maker of virtual and augmented reality tools for education based out of Spain, has created an online classroom portal that incorporates elements of AR, called a virtual learning environment. The company has also developed “cards” that can be sold in bookstores or used by distance students that marry physical environments with digital content.
While AR is fast becoming a powerful tool in education, there are some drawbacks. Pokemon Go, for example, has drawn safety concerns after many users — including young students — have wandered into busy traffic, unpopulated areas, or private property in search of Pokemon. The other major drawback? The cost of technology. AR requires the use of smart phones, which don’t come cheap. While many young students already own these phones, not all do, and schools in underfunded areas especially won’t be able to adopt AR technology at the same rate. Still, AR is proving to be more than just a fad, and these new apps have the power to transform learning in and outside the classroom for a whole new generation of students.