Immersive Technology for Remote Teaching
As teaching has to suddenly go on-line and remote in this time of minimised contact, I wanted to make some practical suggestions about where immersive technology can (and cannot) help in the immediate term.
Virtual Reality (VR)
VR teaching is not here yet. People do not have the necessary equipment, and, even if they suddenly did, there would remain a dearth of suitable software. (Our Project Mobius is trying to plug that gap – we are in Alpha testing now.) We could set up 360 degree cameras in a class and let people virtually sit there using VR (if we got the headsets to them at home) but the benefit of that is pretty small versus the cost. Also: there is a global shortage of the most obvious VR headset option, the Oculus Quest. So: most people can simply set VR aside at the moment.
Augmented Reality (AR)
AR technology is in some ways pretty immature compared to VR – we are a long way off from the end goal of streamlined AR glasses, and we still need to hold a physical screen between the user and the world to make it work. That said, if you and your students each own a phone or a tablet from the last 2-3 years, you very likely have some pretty impressive AR technology in your hands already. As a general rule, AR is fantastic for showing the 3D characteristics of an object (rather than those of an environment). Here is a compelling example of how AR transforms engagement with 3D models (with school kids, but still):
So, if you want to teach about an object (eg. an artefact, or painting, or molecule, or animal, or organ….) then perhaps AR could help. The main initial barrier is whether or not the content exists for you already.
The good news is that there is a huge amount of content available for free right now. And even if the content you need does not yet exist, you may well be able to create it yourself, with a moderate amount of additional effort (get in touch if you would like me to post a workflow).
I will compile a live list at the end of this page of potentially useful sources of models and AR apps that I come across, or which people recommend to me, but my main focus here is to alert people to a free, well-established platform that you can use today: Sketchfab.
I sometimes refer to Sketchfab as the YouTube of 3D models as it lets anyone upload their own content and the platform takes care of how to present it on different devices, just as YouTube does with videos. An object on Sketchfab can be viewed using:
- VR headset
- Any ordinary web-browser
- An AR-enabled device (smartphones and tablets from last 3-4 years)
No one need be left behind! (Whole environments exist there too, but they are awkward to view without VR, in my opinion. Judge for yourself.)
What is more, there are millions of models up there already – perhaps the very one you need, particularly if you need something that is either famous (e.g. King Tut’s mask) or generic (e.g. a lymphocyte). Some advanced uses that involve manipulating the model can require modest payment, but the majority are free to view. Go have a look here - I think most people will be surprised at what they are able to find.
To view a model on Sketchfab in the traditional on-screen way, you just navigate to it on the web. I embed one as an example here:
But that is just a 3D model viewed on a web-enabled device. To get the full AR-experience, you need to install the Sketchfab app (free). When you find the model you want on the app, you can click the following symbol to enable AR mode.
(VR mode exists too, for those with VR goggles, but AR is the strong-suit of this platform.)
You need to point your camera at a surface for a moment and move it around until the AR symbols show up as a pattern on the surface (high contrast, flat, non-reflective surfaces are best). It looks like this:
Then you tap on the surface and the object is placed there. If you are too close you may need to shrink the object by using the pinch-zoom method on the touchscreen. You can rotate the object using a single finger. Here is a quick demo using a heart model I found:
Make your own content?
If the object you want is not on Sketchfab already, then perhaps you can add it yourself. You may have a 3D model already, know someone who does, or if you can lay your hands on the object itself, you can create your own using your camera phone. Some software options available here:
And it is well worth pointing out (thanks, Rachel Opitz!) that all students and educators with a @uni email account get a free educational license for autodesk software, including the following for photogrammetry:
If there is sufficient interest from colleagues, I will test out some of these and add to the page as and when I figure out a good DIY workflow for the uninitiated.
Other AR Apps
I have found a handful of cool AR apps that you may be able to use in teaching - listed below. The main issue is that anything mass-market enough to be viable as a standalone app, probably isn't niche or specialised for higher educaiton application. There may be exceptions, though. Be sure and email me suggestions for the list if you come accross any good ones!
Other 3D Model Resources
With particular thanks to Rachel Opitz for suggestions, here are some other 3D model resources:
- Open Heritage - Explore iconic locations in 3D, discover the tools of digital preservation, and download the collection
- Europeana - 3D models of many artefacts and locations accross Europe.
- Fossils - A collection of links to 3D fossil resources
- The Smithsonian - A growing collection of 3D captures of items in the Smithsonian collection.
- Morphosource - Data archive that allows researchers to store and organize, share, and distribute their own 3d data. Specialises in skeletal models.