Mapping out the future of VR and AR

Mobile World Congress
Shanghai, China
30 June – 1 July, 2017

The Yu Garden with the Shanghai Tower behind

The Yu Garden ( 豫园) with the Shanghai Tower (上海中心大厦) behind. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

After flying up from Guilin on 29 June, I managed to catch the last two days of the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai. An enormous event that brought together technologists, marketers and investors, and showcased new technologies from phones to drones and robots to cars, it also hosted a series of summits on specific themes. I spent Friday 30 June at the VR and AR Summit, where industry speakers offered their perspectives on the latest developments and the current challenges facing VR and AR.

In his presentation, What is the future of VR & AR?, Christopher Tam (from Leap Motion) argued that there are 5 key elements of VR and AR, namely immersion, imagination, availability, portability and interaction. Before the advent of VR/AR, it was as if our computing platforms only allowed us to peek at the possibilities through a tiny keyhole, but now we can open the door into a utopian world, he said.

Immersion needs high quality graphics and rapid refresh rates; imagination needs good content; but interaction is hard to measure. One way of measuring interaction is by considering human-machine interaction bandwidth. This is a fundamental factor to unlock the mainstream adoption of VR/AR and, while a lot of progress has been made on the other elements, this remains a bottleneck which the industry is currently focused on addressing. The leap from 1D to 2D computing required the invention of the mouse to accompany the keyboard. A mouse works for 2D because it allows one-to-one mapping; however, it is not sufficient in a 3D world, because in such a world we need to do more than moving, selecting, pointing or clicking. Interaction in a 3D world should be inspired by the way we interact with the real world; we should use the model of ‘bare hands’ interaction, given that this is our primary way of interacting with the real world. It is natural, universal, unencumbered, and accessible. In education, children can study in a hands-on style, with more fun and better retention; this is how children learn in the real world. In training, people can practise how to handle complex situations in hands-on ways. In commerce, consumers can enjoy the digital world and be impressed at the first try. In healthcare, we can enable diagnosis, physical therapies and rehabilitation; this moves the barrier between healthcare givers and their patients. In art and design, we can express ourselves by creating in a 3D manner with no restraints. In social relations, we can hang out and interact with friends. In entertainment, there will be easier, more intuitive controlling, and deeper immersion; users can become the protagonists in the stories we are telling, not just operating a person but becoming that person. Thus, hand tracking brings to life the advantages of VR/AR in almost all verticals. He concluded by demonstrating Leap Motion’s hand tracking technology.

In his presentation, The future of virtual reality in China, James Fong (from Jaunt China) suggested that VR is the next stage in a long human quest to experience and interact with captured and created realities; this stretches from cave art through painting, photography, gramophones, motion pictures, television and 3D films to AR and VR. He suggested that there is no need to separate VR and AR as they will merge soon. He briefly pointed out some questions of looming importance: we want Star Trek’s Holodeck or the Matrix experience, but we need to ask how this affects our humanity. Will we become isolated from each other? Will we appreciate human connections? Will we not want to leave the perfect VR/AR world?

In VR/AR storytelling, we can be part of a scripted narrative or take our own pathway through a free-form construct; engage in first-person participation or third-person observation; venture alone or interact with n-number of participants; and focus on private enjoyment or share experiences with family, friends and the world. It will however take a long time for high quality and compelling content to arrive, in part because VR will disrupt every element of content creation. We are used to third-person stories and it will take time to get used to first-person stories. We haven’t yet developed the creative language for working with VR. However, all of the major companies that run operating systems are moving to support VR natively, and this will usher in major developments.

He wrapped up by looking at the Chinese market, where there is no Google, Facebook, Amazon or Twitter, and where the market is dominated by local players like Baidu, WeChat, Weibo, iQiyi, Youku, Tencent, Alipay and WeChat Pay. Therefore a lot of international products don’t work in this country. Some challenges in China are the same as in the rest of the world (e.g., poor headset viewing experiences; market experimenting with live and 360) and some are different (VR experience centres/cafés in China keep interest high; content quality has not improved due to a lack of financing; and the camera and higher quality headset market is starting to pick up). He predicted that China could be the largest VR market in the world by 2018.

The slogan of the 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

In a panel discussion moderated by Sam Rosen (ABI Research), with panel members Alvin Wang (Vive), James Fong (Jaunt China) and Christopher Tam (Leap Motion), it was suggested that 5G will make a big difference to VR/AR adoption because if processing is done online at high speed, we will be able to use much less bulky headsets with less drain on batteries. Alvin Wang mentioned that it will soon be possible to wear headsets that incorporate facial recognition and emotion recognition based on microgestures, allowing interviewers to sense whether an interviewee is nervous or lying, or teachers to sense whether a student understands. He claimed that one of the scarcest commodities in the world is good teachers, but AI technology can give everyone personalised access to the best teachers. He mentioned a project to put 360 cameras in MIT classes so that anyone in the world can join a class by high profile professors. James Fong talked about the power of VR to give people a sense of real-world events; he gave the example of being able to place viewers in the context of refugees arriving in another country, seeing the scale of the phenomenon, maybe being able to touch the boat the refugees arrived on, and thereby building more empathy than is possible with traditional news reports on TV.

In his presentation, The next big test for HMDs: Is the industry prepared?, Tim Droz (from SoftKinetic) said the aim of VR and AR is to take you somewhere other than your current location. There are two types of interaction which are theoretically possible in VR and AR environments; inbound interaction through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and haptics; and outbound interaction through the mind, gaze, facial expression, voice, touch, pushing, knocking, grabbing (etc), gesture, body expression, and locomotion. At the moment only a few of these are available, but as more are built into our equipment, it will become more bulky and unwieldy. However, for mass adoption, a lighter and more seamless experience is needed. He demonstrated some SoftKinetic hardware (like the time-of-flight sensor) and software (like human tracking and full body tracking software) which will make a contribution to interaction through hand movements. This greatly strengthens users’ sense of presence.

In his presentation, 360° and VR User Generated Content – Millions of 360° cameras and smartphones in 2017!, Patrice Roulet (from ImmerVision) suggested that it will soon become normal for everyday smartphones to be used to record and share 360 content, in such a way that it captures your entire environment and the entire moment. It will only take two clicks to share such content on social media. To capture this content, it’s necessary to have a very good lens (such as ImmerVision’s panomorph lens which provides a high quality image across the whole field of view, can be miniaturised for mobile devices, and allows multi-platform sharing and viewing), and advanced 360 image processing. The panomorph lens can be used for much more than capturing 360 images; the internet of things (IoT) is about to evolve from connected devices to smart devices, and this technology has the potential to play a role as part of artificial intelligence (AI) in the upcoming ‘Cambrian explosion’ of the IoT.

In his presentation, VR content: Where do we go next?, Andrew Douthwaite (from WEARVR) stated that one key question is what comes first: adoption of hardware or high quality content; it’s something of a chicken and egg situation. He showed an example of a rollercoaster VR experience on a headset linked to a desktop computer; he noted that many people initially experience some nausea due to the sensory conflict that arises from, for example, sitting still while immersed in a moving VR experience. The emergence of mobile VR is now bringing VR experiences to a much wider audience; Google Cardboard is currently the most widespread example. There is a lot of 360 content on YouTube, and games like Raw Data are helping to drive the industry forward. Google Earth VR is another great example and will help VR reach the mass market, and could impact travel and tourism. New software is now making it possible for users to create VR characters and then inhabit their bodies and act as those characters.

Important future developments are wireless and comfortable VR headsets and more natural input mechanisms, including hand presence. One problem is that much 360 video content is currently of low quality; there is no point in having high quality headsets unless there is also high quality content available. The future of content, he said, lies in storytelling and narrative-based content; social interaction; healthcare; property; training; education; tourism; therapy and mental health (e.g., mindfulness and meditation); serialised content; lifestyle and productivity (though this might be more AR); and WebVR (an open standard which is a kind of metaverse, allowing you to have VR experiences in your web browser).

In his presentation, VR marketing, Philip Pelucha (from 3D Redshift) suggested that the next generation of commerce will not be browser-based; he gave the example of a 360 video of a product leading to a pop-up store allowing customers to further engage with the product. Noting that we already have online universities, he asked how long before virtual reality universities appear. He mentioned that soon we won’t have to commute to work because our phones and laptops will turn the world into our virtual office. In fact, he said, this is already beginning to happen, and when today’s children grow up, they won’t understand why you would have to go to an office to work, or to a shop to buy something. He also spoke about one major area of current development as being language education; a VR/AR app for immersive learning, or to support you when travelling, could be extremely helpful.

In his presentation, Bring the immerse experience to entertainment, movie and live event, Francis Lam (from Isobar China) showcased innovative examples of 360 videos. He showed the B(V)RAIN headset that combines VR with neural sensors; as your emotions change, what you see changes. In effect, the hardware allows you to visualise your mental state, and this can have consequences such as the targets you face in a shooter game, or the taste combinations in drinks that are recommended to you.

He concluded with some issues for consideration. Bad VR, he pointed out, can make you feel sick, so it needs to be high quality and low latency. VR is not just about watching, but rather about experiencing; it is about how, from a first-person point of view, you can go into a scene and experience it. VR is not just visual; audio is important, but there can be other sensors and tactile feedback. We should also ask to what extent VR can be a shared experience, where someone wearing a headset can interact with others who are not. VR is good for communication, a point which is well understood by Facebook; for example, with VR you can make eye contact in a way that is not possible in video chat. VR can allow us to explore new possibilities, such as experimenting with genders. In fact, VR hasn’t arrived yet; there is much more development to happen. Finally, he stated, VR is really not content, it is a medium.

China Mobile slogan, 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai

China Mobile display, 2017 Mobile World Congress, Shanghai. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

There is no doubt that industry perspectives on new technologies differ in some ways from those usually heard at academic and educational conferences, but is important that there is an awareness, and an exchange, of differing views between technologists and educators. After all, we face many of the same challenges, and we stand to gain from collaboratively developing solutions that will work in the educational and other spheres.

From mobiles to MOOCs in Malaysia

The Twin Towers, KL, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Twin Towers, KL, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Digital Education Show Asia
Kuala Lumpur
15-16 June, 2015

The third annual Digital Education Show Asia once again brought together educators from around Asia to discuss key themes in contemporary educational technology, from mobile learning to MOOCs, and big data to the internet of things.

In his opening plenary, What does learning mean?, Sugata Mitra suggested that the idea of knowing is itself changing, a point he illustrated with examples going back to his Hole in the Wall experiment in 1999 in India, which was repeated with World Bank funding across a number of other countries from 1999-2004. In every case, groups of unsupervised children working on computers in safe, public spaces were able to teach themselves how to use computers, download games, and learn some English. He found that generally they could acquire a level of computing literacy equivalent to that of an office secretary in the West in 9 months. Within 4-5 months after that, students had learned how to use a search engine to discover the right answers to questions set in their school homework. His conclusion was that groups of children using the internet can learn anything by themselves.

He found, moreover, that the process could be facilitated by an adult, not necessarily a knowledgeable one but a friendly one, who encourages the children. This is the grandparent approach, which differs from the prescriptive methods typically adopted by teachers and parents. The Skype-enabled  ‘granny cloud’, formed in 2009, doesn’t only consist of grandparents, but of a wide range of adults interested in the education of children. They are beamed into remote locations where there is a lack of good teachers. They don’t teach – they ask questions. This is effectively a self-organised learning environment, or SOLE, where the ‘granny’ amplifies the process.

A SOLE can easily be set up in a traditional classroom. The essential elements are broadband + collaboration + encouragement and admiration. The furniture gets removed and around 5 computers with large screens can be introduced, with students working in self-selecting groups to try to answer questions which are posed to them. This method began in Gateshead in 2010 and spread from there across England and into Europe, and by about 2012 it had gone viral across the world.

However, teachers complained that this approach doesn’t work well in the last few years of schooling, when they need to prepare students for final examinations where there is no internet available. Mitra suggested that the examination system was born to train office workers of the early 20th century in reading, writing and arithmetic; workers had to read instructions and follow them without asking questions. He asked: Why is the school system continuously producing people for a purpose that no longer exists? Nowadays, he said, employers are looking for creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, which are skills that reflect the office environment of the 21st century. Why should an examination be the only day in students’ lives when they don’t have access to the internet? Allowing the internet into the examination hall, he suggested, will change the entire system. He went on to discuss the kinds of questions being asked in exams, and suggested that many of them have little relevance to students’ future lives, and can in any case be answered easily with Google. The old system was a just-in-case learning system; but we don’t need much of this knowledge for our everyday lives or careers.

He used the analogy of cars doing away with the need for coachmen, because the passengers became the drivers. He asked whether it is possible, in the same way, for learners to become the drivers of their own learning. This, he said, is the idea behind the school in the cloud, or SinC. A number of these environments have now been set up to explore whether it is possible to implement SOLEs remotely around the world. Results so far suggest that: reading comprehension increases rapidly, students’ self-confidence and self-expression improve, aspirations change, internet skills improve rapidly, teachers change their approaches, and SinC works better inside school than outside school. SOLEs, he went on to say, also work for skills education, undergraduate education, and teacher training and professional training.

In his paper, Will learning analytics transform higher education?, Abelardo Pardo suggested that learning analytics can involve a wide variety of stakeholders: students, instructors, institutional managment, parents or policy makers. The term ‘learning analytics’ is usually used to talk about course or departmental analytics, while ‘academic analytics’ refers to institutional, regional, or national and international analytics: but these are different levels of the same process. One challenge is how to combine very different data sources for different stakeholders. Another challenge is finding the right algorithm to cover, for example, statistical prediction, clustering and profiling (identifying features of groups within a larger population), relationship mining, link prediction in networks, and text analysis. Finally, once we have conducted the analysis, we have to decide what to do about it: how will we act on the data? So we need to link stakeholders to data sources, forms of analysis, and actions to be taken.

Co-operation between different actors and sections within institutions is essential, meaning that leadership is necessary to set up a data-intensive culture which becomes a culture of change. The term ‘data wranglers’ is being used by some researchers to describe those who liaise between members of these multi-disciplinary groups. He finished by outlining 3 scenarios: a weekly student engagement report giving personalized feedback, strategic advice for the rest of the semester, and even advice for the year; a summary for instructors indicating what students have done over the week; and finally, feedback for the institution on degrees, infrastructure, and the student experience.

In his paper, Big data for the win, Eric Tsui suggested that institutions should not only focus on internally collected data, but should consider external, historical data. He extensively discussed the cloud, with its 3 kinds of connections: machine to machine, people to machine, and people to people. He asked whether we can draw more intelligence from the cloud. He gave illustrative examples of how systems like ReCAPTCHA and Duolingo crowdsource data. He also offered a detailed example of a cloud-based PLE&N platform using Google tools, which is scalable and robust. There are challenges in big data, he suggested, around privacy, what data to collect, and the fact that historical data haunts every instructor and learner.

In the paper, MOOCs – Where are we at now?, Dr. Daryono gave a list of reasons for implementing MOOCs, ranging from extending reach and access, through building and maintaining a brand, to innovation. He outlined the differences between cMOOCs (derived from the connectivist movement, linked to the development of OER) and xMOOCs (which are highly structured, content-driven, and largely automated). There are many types and versions of MOOCs curently emerging. In the future, more recognition is needed for MOOCs, and we should work towards collaborative, affordable, consumer-driven MOOCs.

In her paper, To MOOC or not to MOOC – Considerations and going forward, Dina Vyortkina noted that people who take MOOCs are generally not fresh to education, tend to be in their thirties or older, and need English to engage in the majority of MOOCs. Drivers for institutions setting up MOOCs include a desire to increase equitable access, to disseminate courses, to advance resarch, and to innovate technologically and pedagogically. From a global perspective, developing countries are underrepresented when it comes to the offering of MOOCs; government initiatives may help. Some see MOOCs provided by Western countries as examples of pedagogical or even cultural imperialism, with few local connections.

It has been suggested that MOOCs fit well with blended or flipped learning approaches. One German study suggests that bMOOCs – blended MOOCs – offer the best of both worlds, i.e., face-to-face and online teaching. However, it’s important that educators check the provider conditions, since some prohibit use of MOOC materials for tuition-based courses. It’s also important for educators to consider how the materials fit with their own teaching philosophies, and whether the content is entirely appropriate.

In my own paper, Creating the anytime, anywhere learner, I spoke about how capitalising on the full potential of anytime, anywhere learning generally involves exploiting a high level of affordances of mobile devices for learning, which correlates with a low level of affordability of those devices in the current context. Using a series of examples, I showed that anytime, anywhere learning may not be necessary in every context, but that where it is possible, there is considerable potential for transforming teaching and learning, and developing learners’ 21st century skills. (See the summary of my presentation recorded by the conference artist below.)

DigiEd2C

Summary of Mark Pegrum’s Presentation (2015)

In his paper, Mobile learning for language learning: Trends, issues and way forward, Glenn Stockwell talked about the challenges of mobile learning outside the classroom. He noted that learning in real-world contexts can bring external disruptions, but also disruptions from inside the learning device itself. He discussed pull and push learning; with pull learning, students need to take the initiative themselves, but in push learning, material is sent automatically to students and they are more likely to pay attention to it. All in all, however, teachers are more enthusiastic about mobile learning than students are, and some learner training (not to mention teacher training) is necessary. Based on research conducted with Phil Hubbard, he suggested that students need technical training (how to use mobile devices for learning), strategic training (what to do with them), and pedagogical training (why to use them). He reported on a study which showed that pedagogical training can dramatically increase students’ participation in mobile learning.

In her paper, How can mobile learning best be used for online distance learning?, Tae-Rim Lee outlined some lessons from the Korean National Open University, which has now progressed through three generations of mobile learning services, as devices and connectivity have evolved. It was found to be important not to depend on any one network or operating system. M-learning content has been shortened to be more atomic in nature; it was found that students preferred approximately 20-minute videos. Segmentation allows students greater control over the content through which they are working. Many changes have been implemented in response to student feedback.

Together with Glenn Stockwell, I moderated a roundtable in the final session of the conference, with the title of Driving success in mobile learning – Challenges and considerations. It was an opportunity to chat to participants in more detail about implementing mobile learning in their own particular contexts and, specific differences notwithstanding, to see that there are many similar challenges and considerations in this area across the globe.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable event, which offered a chance to hear the perspectives of educators from around Asia, and a chance to network with educators facing similar questions and issues around the world.

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