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Documentation and e-Learning (Part 5): Augmented Reality: An Eye-Popping New e-Learning Tool


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As I described last time, dynamic web data and web-cam feeds are marvelous ways to hold learners’ interest, by exposing them to live real-world resources. This is especially true in subjects like astronomy, geology, and marine biology. But how can an e-Learning system teach people to repair a car, run a factory-floor machine, or do some other complex real life activity? Computer simulations can demonstrate such things, but real interactive learning experiences would be better.

That’s where a powerful new training technology called Augmented Reality (AR) can help. What you are about to see may seem unbelievable, but people are doing it now with available software on regular PCs. And their AR-based content can be delivered today on the SyberWorks Training Center or any other LMS that supports web-based courses.

Mixing Real and Virtual

Augmented Reality is the mixing of live web-cam feeds with computer-generated data, images, UI elements, and text. This is NOT the same as the pre-packaged special effects that Hollywood has been feeding us for decades. AR mixes dynamic computer-generated images with real-time feeds from PC web-cams.

Companies have been developing this technology since the early 1990s. And you can discover more about it by Googling “augmented reality” PLUS:

  • microsoft
  • google
  • adobe
  • flash
  • toolkit
  • e-learning

You’ll discover a lot. At this writing, for example, YouTube hosted some 8,000 videos about AR. And when I did those searches, here are four of the best AR demos that I found (be sure to turn your PC speakers on):

  • Here’s a popular demo from GE (click the “See How It Works” link in the window that opens): ge.
  • This BMW video may be the best example I found of using AR to teach users a real-life process (car repair), and then guide trained repairmen on the shop floor:
  • Imagine how you might apply the technique shown in this next video to the printed materials that your students use, or that instructors display on monitor screens:
  • Homeland Security even has this high-end firefighting/haz-mat application, which trains professionals realistically, but without exposing them to harm:

And if you want to see more, here you go:

  • video.
  • video.

Many AR applications use available software and web cams. Some (such as the Homeland Security and car-repair examples) involve special goggles. But many more let people view AR content directly on PC screens. In most of these, users hold black-and-white pattern cards (called “markers”) in front of their PC web cams. These markers tell PCs which images to display, the data to show about them, and how this “virtual content” should change as students move the markers in front of the web cams.

But while viewing AR videos, please think about how the underlying capabilities shown might work in your training projects. This video of virtual water bouncing off a poor researcher ( brings a smile, but its important point is the “physical” real-time interaction between the man and the dynamic computer-generated objects.

So instead of bouncing virtual water off students’ heads, your next AR project might let automobile designers see how air flows around a car model that they hold in their hands… and to explore how this flow changes as they move the model within its virtual AR wind-tunnel. And without any extra development effort, it could also reveal the differing aerodynamics of alternative car designs. All without actually building wind-tunnels or testing full-sized vehicles in special labs.

Ready to Try?

If you’d like to explore AR more deeply, this site: describes one way to create AR applications using Adobe Flex and a 3D-graphics program like Google SketchUp, Maya, or Blender. The presentation is fast and you must be familiar with web coding. But if you’re technically minded and seriously interested, go for it!

And at the end, it mentions how to incorporate AR material into web sites and online e-Learning screens. This hints that AR content could be used today on the SyberWorks Training Center or any other LMS that handles web-based courses.

Born in research labs, AR has been migrating into commercial, advertising, and training applications… and even to individual content-creators’ desktops. You would do well to follow its progress if your e-Learning products would be more effective with:

  • Computer-generated content displayed above instructor’s class notes when students view them on classroom monitors, or above students’ printed training materials on their own PC screens.
  • Online course controls, navigation buttons, and other informative images overlaid on real-world videos (like our car-repair example).

Whether teaching “book topics” or the most complex real-time processes, your users might benefit from AR’s ability to help:

  • Teach learners and hold their interest.
  • Certify their competency (including in “real-time test-bed” environments).
  • Guide them through related tasks on-the-job, after training.

Someday, perhaps, your learners could be as lucky as that BMW repairman we saw earlier. I believe that we’ll all soon include at least some AR content in our training programs and user documentation… either because we want to, or because our competitors beat us to it.

About the Author:

Dave Powell is Documentation Manager for SyberWorks Inc. ( ), a privately-held supplier of e-Learning software and training. For the past 15 years, he has written award-winning marketing collateral and user documentation for hardware/software companies like PictureTel, 3Com, Philips Medical Systems, Polaroid, and SyberWorks. Prior to that, he edited and wrote for publications like Computerworld, Infosecurity News, Networking Management, Digital Design, LightWave, Popular Computing, Harvard Business Review, and Leaders. (During that time, he also served as an author and Editorial Advisor for Sesame Street. )

About SyberWorks, Inc.

SyberWorks, Inc. ( ) is a leader in the custom e-Learning Solutions and Learning Management System/Learning Content Management System (LMS/LCMS) industries for Fortune 1000 corporations, law enforcement, healthcare, and other industries. Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company serves the multi-billion-dollar e-Learning market. Since 1995, SyberWorks has developed and delivered unique and economical solutions to create, manage, measure, and improve e-Learning programs at companies and organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and around the world.


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