'Augmented reality': the educational component

Handheld Augmented Reality Project creates an environment with virtual characters layered onto real sapce. Students use handheld GPS units to trigger situations where they can use their skills to compete.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

In an effort to increase interest in math and sciences in schools, university researchers have developed an innovative pilot program that uses handheld computers and GPS units to make an augmented reality-based educational environment, reports eSchool News.

The Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP) is a collaboration among Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Augmented reality" is an environment in which virtual images have been layered on top of those in the real world. In other words, augmented reality is the ability to use a computer program to superimpose a layer of virtual characters or other sensory information onto any location.

Students receive a GPS unit to track their movement. When they reached the designated area, they encounter a computer-generated image or situation pertaining to the scenario. For example, one activity is called "Alien Contact" and assumes that aliens have landed on Earth. Students use math and and literacy skills to collect evidence to prove whether the aliens have landed.

The project arose from "trying to think about where society is going, what students will need, what the educational properties of these devices are, and how we can design something interesting with these devices," said Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who spoke at the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando Jan. 26.

HARP uses an approach called "place-independent augmented reality," which is where a student sees the distances and the topography during the activity. The handheld computer displays digital objects and virtual people who exist in an augmented-reality world superimposed on real space.

MIT provided the GPS-enabled handhelds for the pilot program as very few schools could afford the type of hardware needed for such a project.

The comparison to a video game is inevitable, but Dede say that was intentional.

"It is more game-like," Dede acknowledged. "We're trying to tap into that pop culture and what students will be interested in."

He added, "Imagine another scenario with a beached whale, where students will take on the role of scientists and use real scientific data. Eventually, we want a teacher to be able to embed his or her own content or simulations."

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