Monday, February 15, 2010

Learning Biology and Habitats with Augmented Reality

This is the second in a three-part series of design proposals for augmented reality learning applications. These are from a paper I wrote in my computers and cognition class. I'll be reworking the main ideas in the paper for a future submission, but probably won't include these, so I figured I'd share!

Just as optics are common in physics curricula, habitats are often found in biology lessons (for example, see The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Science and Technology). Without leaving the classroom, large scale habitats can only be discussed in a disconnected fashion. Some classes have the opportunity to take field trips and see natural habitats, but of course this is limited to what can be found in the local environment, and only a short slice of time can be observed. With augmented reality, habitats can be brought to students, and life can be simulated at a faster rate in a real setting.

The next design proposition considers the latter case. The goal is to show students how a particular habitat looks over several seasons, and to include some level of interaction to help them see how changes in the habitat can impact life within it. The application is location dependent, and could be set up in a real habitat or a mockup of one (for example, at a museum). Handheld mobile devices could again be used, but head mounted displays would make the experience more immersive. Multiple devices will be connected together so all students can see the same virtual content. The habitat should be preprocessed in some way to aid in feature tracking, ensuring that high quality augmentations are possible.

Virtual animals and plants that live in the habitat will be depicted as going about their regular lives on a shortened time scale. The animals forage for food, find mates, raise young, burrow for the winter, and so on, while the plants grow and die. The weather will change with the seasons; for example, rain would fall in the spring and snow in the winter for some locations. The seasons could continue to cycle to suit the time allocated for the activity.

Students will be able to interact with the habitat using large cards. Each card will have a symbol on it depicting what it can do. For example, one card might have a chainsaw, which means it can be used to cut down trees in the habitat. If a tree is cut down, it might appear greyed out in the augmentations. Other cards might be used to introduce disease into the habitat, have a cabin built by humans, add pollution to a water source, or attract predators. The student will place the card in the habitat where they want the associated action to occur, and then aim the camera connected with their device (be is a mobile device or a head mounted display) at the card so it is registered. They can then watch the action occur, and see how life in the habitat reacts.

This activity benefits greatly from its situatedness. Students should feel more connected to the happenings in the habitat because they can watch it unfold in front of their eyes; this offers a much different experience than does observing the same habitat from afar through pictures and videos. There is also a sense of embodiment as students can actively walk through and affect the environment they are studying.

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