When the world is not enough

Joanna Kalalahti

“Augmented reality can improve a student’s spatial ability,” says researcher Joanna Kalalahti from the School of Information Sciences.

Augmented reality helps people to put theory into practice.

On the table sits an A4-sized photograph of a footprint in muddy ground. Joanna Kalalahti, a researcher from the University of Tampere, places her smartphone on top of the picture. All of a sudden, a three-dimensional shoe appears above the footprint, an image that can be turned this way and that with the phone.

The shoe application is an impressive example of how augmented reality (AR) can be used. Like virtual worlds, AR is a virtual technology that is beginning to be utilised in education to provide new ways of illustrating learning content.

AR applications can be used on most mobile devices. Data glasses – such as the Google Glass – are expected to hit the market on a large scale very soon, and they can also be used to view augmented content that is aligned with the physical environment.

Joanna Kalalahti is the coordinator of the 3DM project on three-dimensional and mobile learning environments at the School of Information Sciences. Her project was part of the Openness Accelerating Learning Networks research consortium, which is funded by the European Social Fund.

The project investigated the possibilities of using AR in teaching and offered training to teachers and library and museum staff in the use of AR.

Facilitating the transition to practice

AR can help in the transition from the abstract to the concrete. Researchers at the University of Florida demonstrated AR’s benefits in a project where anaesthesiologists were taught to use a complicated anaesthetic machine.

The students first learned the operating principles of the machine in theory. However, for many, the jump from theory to the controls of the physical machine proved difficult.

Presentations of the anaesthetic machine at varying levels of abstraction were used to facilitate the step-by-step transition from theory to practice by gradually increasing the degree of practical application. The most abstract level was presented with virtual models, with the real anaesthetic machine used at the most concrete level. The most advanced transition model used AR.

“The anaesthetic machine is looked at through a mobile device and an augmented image of what is going on inside the machine is displayed on the screen of the mobile device,” Kalalahti says.

“The application also reacts to the changes the user makes with the physical controls.”

AR was shown to be highly beneficial in supporting learning, especially at the point when the students started to operate the real machine and to practise with the abstract operating model of the machine.

An aid to conceptualisation

Understanding the way the anaesthetic machine works is partly an issue of spatial ability, which is often categorised as its own type of intelligence. Some people have better spatial ability than others, and AR applications have been shown to aid its development.

For example, applications have been developed for teaching geometry: geometric objects can be looked at with data glasses and turned in mid-air with a special pen and a control panel.

The Earth’s relationship to the Sun and the effects of our planet’s movements on the change of seasons and days have been illustrated in a similar manner.

Studies have also been conducted to investigate how operations manuals that use data glasses work. For example, they can help a mechanic who encounters a certain type of machinery only occasionally.

“We can all imagine how something similar could happen in our own lives. There is maybe something wrong with the photocopy machine and we have to figure out which part of it is blocked. An AR application could work in this case too,” Kalalahti says.

Applications for teaching

Easy-to-use AR browsers are already available for mobile devices. However, the developers of these browsers are looking to find working business models, so there may be sudden changes in the appearance and functionality of the browser applications. Browsers that were previously free of charge may also start to cost.

Despite the uncertainty caused by the browsers’ rapidly changing business models, people have been very keen to try them out. For example, Aurasma, the free AR browser, has been used to present instructional content at several educational institutions.

AR seems to work best in teaching when information is added to the physical objects that are the focus of study; students do not have to divide their attention by looking up additional information in a book, for example.

However, an application used in teaching should not be so good that learners become passive.

“The application should gradually decrease the number of support mechanisms that are carried out with the help of virtual information. This makes the students gradually increase their know-how and independence and help them gain confidence in their ability to do the work even without the instructions.”

Privacy and safety are an issue

AR is increasingly being used in marketing.

It has been speculated that data glasses will be the medium through which AR really breaks into the mainstream.

“Some people already use the Google Glass, but they are not yet marketed on a large scale,” Kalalahti says.
The new technology also raises questions about how it will affect people’s privacy and behaviour.

Kalalahti recalls a story about a boy in the US who was playing a popular AR game based on geographical information. He got into trouble because of his suspicious behaviour near a police station. Using his mobile device, the boy was looking at the game’s virtual content, which was visible in front of the police station, but law enforcers were suspicious of the boy’s unusual behaviour. Lawsuits have also been filed because people have been suspected of using their data glasses to illegally record films at the cinema.

“There is already a debate about privacy, security issues, and everything else that can be affected by the use of augmented reality,” Joanna Kalalahti says.

“However, it remains to be seen how much of it is ‘normal’ fear brought about by new technology and what really needs to be covered by tighter regulations.”

For more information about augmented reality, follow the links below:

The AR shoe application 

An information page on the research project investigating the augmented anaesthetic machine

Construct3D – An Augmented Reality System for Mathematics and Geometry Education 

The ARea 14 – Future City as Open Mixed Reality Space event is being held in Oulu on 12–13 June 2014

Augmented reality


  • Abbreviated to AR.
  • In AR, virtual information is superimposed onto a physical entity or representation of the physical entity in real time and it is seen through a visual display.
  • The term was coined in 1992 when two engineers working for Boeing developed a user manual based on AR.
  • The first 3D head-mounted display device for a virtual world was developed in the 1960s. Ideas associated with AR and virtual worlds have been expressed since the 1950s.

Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Laura Tohka