A Brief, Personal History of Augmented Reality

Reflections on technology's potential to shape our lives and learning experiences.

My first iPhone was the smallest, most fragile thing I had ever owned. I loved it more than I thought I would, and within a few months, it had revolutionized my life. It helped me navigate my pregnancy, with apps that tracked the growing size of my belly, prepared me for labor, and even timed my contractions. My first iPhone predates my first child, and they’ve both come a long a way in what feels like the blink of an eye.

In the years since my son was born, every important milestone in his life seems to have been mirrored by an iPhone upgrade. They both grew, my son in size and my phone in capacity. The iPhone’s virtual tools make real life more efficient and fun. For us, as for many families, the iPhone has become a ubiquitous part of daily routine. With a tap, we can map the night sky above us, watch the President speak live, have a face-to-face conversation with a loved one across the world, or pay a bill. When I first brought that tiny device into our home, I had no idea how drastically it would shape our interactions with the world. Right in my pocket there’s a digital reality that is central to my physical reality.

Most recently, just as suddenly as my son’s first words, and just as conveniently as Siri’s, virtual and augmented reality experiences have become a normal part of life. We experience an enhanced version of reality modified by technology, and it’s awesome. Google Maps gets us where we need to go, Pokémon Go gets us out and exploring our community, and Google Cardboard gets my son engaged in subject matter like he’s never been before.

This summer, my son and I both had opportunities to use virtual and augmented reality tools in an educational setting. While I led a professional development program for teachers at South Fayette’s STEAM Innovation Summer Institute, my son attended Technology Camp at the Sarah Heinz House. We were both using the same technologies, but with two very different groups of people.

My program, which I ran through the Senator John Heinz History Center, was designed for teachers who were curious about approaches for connecting places across time using digital technologies. The group worked with tools like Google Cardboard, Google Maps Street View Time Machine, View-Master, and Layar to brainstorm authentic applications for integrating archival materials and technology into the classroom. Each educator left with insight on how to enhance learning experiences.

Meanwhile, my son was learning how to be a user and creator of augmented and virtual reality experiences. He grew up surrounded by a digital reality, and now he’s learning not just how to interact with these tools, but how to manipulate them himself. My son and his fellow campers channeled their passion for technology into engagement with the tools that construct their digital realities.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences give educators a unique opportunity to capture the attention of students, and potential applications for virtual reality continue to reveal themselves. We can swim with sharks through the lens of a cardboard box, explore forgotten history in our pajamas, and experience the thrill of an amusement park attraction from the comfort of the couch. Without leaving the classroom, kids can delve into the Great Barrier Reef, sit in the middle of Times Square, or climb Egypt’s pyramids.  A virtual dimension is popping up all around us, and the phrase “we create our own reality” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Published September 29, 2016