AR: Changing the way kids play, learn and explore
Plymouth. 05.02.2018: AR is predicted to outperform VR in 2018 as our smartphones and tablets become a magical window to an ‘augmented world’ but it isn’t straight-forward when attempting to engage, and win over the younger audience.
I’ve worked in 3D for more than 20 years and have seen all the attempts to push VR and AR technology, there has been a fair few false starts. In my view 2017 marked the turning point, both technologies are off the ground and will continue to fly. This is an exciting time, and a fantastic opportunity, I haven’t seen a landmark like this in 3D for many years.
VR now works well thanks to great headsets with sufficient image resolution and fast frame rates, content is not a problem, it simply uses modern 3D games technology. AR is a different story, we would still be waiting for it to take off, if it wasn’t for modern smartphones and tablets. I was excited to see the development of various AR glasses but the experience of using them was poor, they are not there yet, they will get there, but in my opinion, not for a few more years (at least).
It turned out that using a handheld device like a phone or tablet for AR Apps works well, feels fairly natural, and seems to be popular, because people have been pre-trained with the way they hold phones to take photos and selfies.
As a Mixed Reality designer for The Moment, I’ve been involved in both VR and AR projects to help engage internal and external audiences – from VR experiences for event marketers to AR experiences to train engineers out in the field.
When a long-standing media client of The Moment came to us with a challenging brief to engage young children, we got the opportunity to really exercise our creative tech skills.
VR is not recommended for young children with concerns regarding brain and eye development among other things. For now, the industry recommends an age of around 12+ for VR. It’s a shame, and I’m sure a little use is ok, at least to experience it. My own children have used VR and as a developer it’s useful to see their reactions and behaviour (not that I’m using my kids as lab rats!)
All is not lost for younger users to enjoy immersive, interactive digital content, if we rule out VR for younger children we are left primarily with AR. While VR brings the user into a full virtual environment, AR brings virtual 3D elements into the users space (or room).
During 2017 the use of handheld smartphones / tablets for AR took off (with a great deal of help from Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore). Up until this point most people’s experience of AR had been pointing a webcam at a printed marker and a few tech demos of face capture tracking.
Now a smartphone or tablet can be pointed at a flat surface without the use of markers to track a ‘place’ to build the 3D elements for the AR App. Markers still have their place especially in books and any specific object the AR needs to be ‘attached’ to, markers can be part of or attached to toys for example. But I think the ARKit’s arrival last year changed the game and sped things up, it works incredibly well and this is without the tracking sensors that will adorn the next generation of devices. If you haven’t seen the Woorld experience for Google Tango – check it out.
And there are many benefits for our children…
Exercise! AR encourages the user to move about, which is great news for parents of small kids who are glued to the sofa! The 3D elements are in the user’s space and with good app design the user needs to move about the object(s) to interact. Getting kids off the sofa but still allowing them access to digital content is the domain of AR and the health benefits are clear. I think there will be ways to use this technology to stimulate development in areas such as coordination and spatial awareness. I think it will become a unique game mechanic for the designers of AR games to force users to move, to look for things behind objects for example. ‘Look for the hidden gems in the forest that now grows on your carpet!’. Of course, for our younger audience it is important that the user experience ensures they don’t run around the room (or outside!) holding a tablet.
Seeing an object in your space allows the user to study and interact with it in ways the app developers may not have even thought of. With learning especially, a user may end up understanding a principle in their own way, or from their own perspective.
Young children have fantastic open imaginations and having characters and objects ‘sat’ in their space is very convincing and engaging. In our prototype testing, kids were observed talking to characters, looking over their device expecting to see the 3D elements in their room, worrying that other people may kick or step on 3D elements as they walk into the device’s camera FOV. Indeed, we observed this behaviour with grownups too. I think this can be pushed with photorealistic objects mixed in with real ones, some interesting results I imagine, powerful for learning and games.
There were challenges to overcome though. As you’d imagine, young children can struggle a bit with holding a device up for lengthy periods, especially larger tablets – some children rest the tablet on their knees for example. When designing the user interface, it is important to place any buttons within reach of small hands, it can be tricky for a small child to let go with one hand, and dropping the device is not unknown! There are some nice cases with big handles on the side which are great for AR kids.
Sometimes, it can take time for the device’s AR tech to locate a flat surface. As adults, most of us would instinctively move around or add more light to get the AR to work. The challenge is to help a younger child to learn what works and what does not. In our research most of the children learned this very fast. Including clear user interface and audio assistance (including training and onboarding elements) helps. When you get the user experience right for your target audience, with importantly the correct level of difficulty, kids will be patient and eager to learn. A balance that is only achieved through rigorous user testing.
There are so many possibilities for kids AR. Bringing characters to life from story books, augmenting toys, countless games with an opportunity to build new formats due to the unique way the user can move about the gaming environment. I have tried many of these over the years, normally on a PC with a webcam, they were normally hard to get working (additional drivers and software to install), and actually a bit disappointing once running. Today’s devices offer a high quality, high performing AR experience which means that a learning experience can take full advantage of bringing elements into the user’s space (a Roman Centurion in your sitting room). A book can begin to bridge with play in a unique way, becoming very interactive, including the use of artificial intelligence to get character feedback with the user.
The Future (but not too far!)
While the AR glasses manufacturers work away to bring wearable AR to the masses, the handheld ‘window on the world’ method of viewing AR using handheld devices will continue to improve (and fast). The latest versions of the big AR plugins for Apple and Android now track walls as well as flat surfaces, and the next generation of handheld devices will use lasers and other sensors to scan your space and track objects. This will be a big jump in terms of possibilities for experience design – 3D elements will be able to ‘hide’ behind real world objects and the real-world objects can be included in the game mechanics, for example game characters could jump up onto the sofa!
This will lead to more social AR experiences. Great multiplayer apps allowing multiple users to see the same thing anchored in the same place in the real world, and it will allow much improved object tracking for AR instructions and labelling on real world objects like Lego or for grownups, your car engine! Check out Lego’s new AR Studio App for kids and adults alike!
Digi-Capital recently reported that “Mobile AR from Apple (ARKit), Google (ARCore) and Facebook (Camera Effects) and computer vision/machine learning (CV/ML) are focusing the minds and wallets of VCs in Silicon Valley, China and beyond. The $2.5 billion invested in AR/VR so far this year ($1 billion in October and November alone) was balanced across AR and VR, but now mobile AR and CV/ML are the new hotness (as VR has cooled).”
There is a unique opportunity to build AR apps that have never been seen before, it is still the wild west in this field, the kids using these apps are now fast learners when it comes to UI and interaction, so it’s an exciting time to be an AR designer. I think we will see some amazing apps this year, especially when you combine mobile AR with AI characters and bots like Alexa, the sky is the limit!
Of course, VR isn’t going away, it too is here to stay, and tetherless headsets will replace all the wires this year making it far more dynamic, portable and immersive.
I can’t wait to see where things go this year!
About Mark Tompson
Mark Tompson is a highly professional 3D Technical Artist / Developer with over 20 years of experience, skilled in CG artwork, 3D design, WebGL, animation and Unity games development. As a Mixed Reality Developer for The Moment, he creates VR and AR experiences for clients in the travel, healthcare, entertainment and engineering sectors.
Mark Tompson, MR Designer, The Moment