Andy Prosser

From Cardboard Boxes to Virtual Worlds: The Evolution of Immersive Learning Experiences

Software Development
From Cardboard Boxes to Virtual Worlds: The Evolution of Immersive Learning Experiences

When I first joined Unipro, one of the company founders shared with me a whimsical tale about a developer from the '90s who took workplace focus to a whole new level. He attended one of our in-house training courses, and after attentively listening to training instructions he would dive head-first into a large cardboard box that he had meticulously placed around his computer screen. The box served as his fortress of solitude, isolating him from external distractions as he went about his task. Apparently, an occasional frustrated murmur would be heard from within the box as he grappled with his challenge, calling to mind Welsh comedian Rob Brydon’s famous ‘Man Trapped in a Box’ routine (check it out on YouTube). Our cardboard hermit clearly had a thirst for a truly immersive digital learning experience and was using the best and most affordable method he could at the time!

We all know that immersive technology has moved on a lot since the late 90s. Rather than dwell on the technical twists, turns, ups and downs over the years, let’s imagine box-man had his head stuck in his personal isolation chamber for 25 years and has only just emerged into the light of the modern era. Surely, we can convince him to throw away that ratty, gnarled cardboard contraption, once and for all?

After having a shave and something to eat, box-man needs to brush up on his terminology and to get a foothold he’ll need to know the difference between Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

AR vs VR: The Basics

AR brings digital elements into your real environment – think Pokémon Go on your phone, or Tom Cruise swiping the air to solve pre-crimes in the Minority Report movie. On the flip side, VR is your ticket to a completely alternate universe, like the classic 90s film: The Lawnmower Man.

As you can probably guess, there’s a middle-ground between AR and VR, which some refer to as Mixed Reality. The more digital objects you add to AR, and the more you can interact with those objects, the more it starts to become like VR. And at the VR end of the spectrum, we’re seeing more and more real-world elements incorporated into VR experiences – tending more towards an augmented reality approach. The lines are blurring, and the likes of Apple are firmly behind this concept of Mixed Reality, as demonstrated by the launch of their Vision Pro headset.

So, with box-man still clinging tightly onto his portable immersion unit, let’s give some real examples of how these technologies can be used in the modern era of digital learning.

The Evolution of Immersive Learning Experiences

Think beyond the video conferencing tools that have become the norm, or learning via some kind of virtual classroom. Instead, imagine how we can use VR to take learning outside of the classroom and into situational learning, immersing yourself in an actual experience. This might be presenting to a room full of virtual people, diagnosing a time-critical issue, handling employee conflict, dealing with an angry customer, or testing your nerve in your very own Kobayashi Maru. These situations are very difficult and costly to simulate in real life, but in the virtual world, the technology allows you to stage and consistently repeat scenarios just like these as many times as you like. Furthermore, the technology can measure how learners react in some very interesting ways. Assessment isn’t just limited to timing how long someone completes a task; modern hardware can monitor head movement, detect sentiment in the spoken voice, and even track eye movement to see how the learner is handling a situation, and if they are giving appropriate eye contact to that angry virtual customer! Companies like Walmart and Verizon leverage this immersive quality, using VR to simulate real-life customer service scenarios and emergencies like store robberies. Studies show these experiences significantly enhance retention and concentration.

As a naturally introverted developer type, I find public speaking heavy-going, and I am not alone. Training platforms have emerged to help address this challenge by putting you in a virtual room with virtual people, all sitting down and listening to you. You may get an irritating person tapping away on their laptop as you speak, or some late arrivers, early leavers, or even a malfunction in your speaker notes. How are you going to react to those? Well, the program is continuously assessing how you address the room, offering helpful advice on your head movements, pacing of material, intonation, and so on. It becomes quite clear that immersive learning experiences such as these have been the beneficiaries of massive advances and the general availability of advanced AI capabilities in recent years. So there’s still hope for shy people like me who don’t like practising in the mirror, thanks to VR.

Healthcare is a sector which is continuing to benefit from advancements in immersive technologies, and once again we have the movies to thank for how these capabilities are often perceived. What may be less obvious is how VR is being employed to train people in treating conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and autism by providing controlled, therapeutic environments for confronting traumatic experiences or practising social interactions. Again, these applications immerse the user into on-demand experiences which would otherwise be difficult to experience in reality.

Augmented Reality experiences are often used to apply virtual labels or a kind of ‘heads-up-display’ onto the real world. Imagine a new warehouse worker holding up their mobile device and seeing the layout of the building, giving them directions, showing where items are stored, checking out the fire exits and so on. These experiences are often mixed with edugamification concepts – incentivising you to explore all the learning in order to boost your score and encourage improvement over time by putting your performance data in your hands.

Finally, in the realm of hands-on technical work, AR offers invaluable support. Imagine a technician working on complex machinery. With AR glasses, they can see overlaid schematics and diagnostic data. Even more compelling is the potential for remote collaboration. A junior technician in New York could get real-time guidance from an expert in London, both looking at the same AR view.

So What’s the Catch?

At this juncture, some might pose the question: "Isn’t crafting such immersive experiences complex and extremely costly, requiring specialist knowledge?" Well, the narrative has shifted considerably over the recent years. There was a time when developing AR and VR experiences was predominantly the domain of the experts, requiring vast resources and niche expertise. But tooling and standardisation continue to grease the wheels of the industry, making it easier than ever to produce engaging visual content. A good example is Open Universal Scene Description (USD), which is an open-source framework that provides a rich toolkit for creating, managing, and interchanging graphical data. OpenUSD streamlines the complexities of crafting immersive visuals, ensuring consistency and compatibility across platforms. OpenUSD removed a big bottleneck in the construction of 3D visuals by allowing tools across different vendors to speak the same language, just as all web browsers understand HTML. Further democratizing the space are Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and Low-Code platforms that predominantly use visual drag and drop to make AR and VR development extremely intuitive and easy. The tooling is no substitute for creativity, and modern Generative AI technology is accelerating that space also, providing some truly stunning results with minimal user input.

With the influx of these technologies into mainstream culture and entertainment, immersive experiences are no longer just a flashy perk. They're steadily becoming a standard, woven into the underlying tech within our laptops, televisions, gaming consoles and mobile devices, whether we want them or not. To emphasize the point, Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max models will be able to record 3D videos, which Apple is calling "spatial video." Spatial video is a type of 3D video that captures depth information, allowing viewers to feel like they are inside the scene. Spatial videos can be viewed on the Apple Vision Pro mixed-reality headset, as well as on other devices that support spatial video playback. With advancements such as these, 3D content creation could quickly become a whole lot more accessible – and further drive the adoption of immersive digital hardware as a result.

So, to the sceptics, the story today is not about the unattainability of AR and VR. It's about the accessibility, the vast potential, and the compelling imperative to embrace these technologies as they reshape the digital landscape. And with the continued acceleration of commoditised AI capabilities, we now have an immense breadth and depth of intelligent digital learning experiences at our fingertips.

In Closing

The man with the cardboard box might have been onto something decades ago. His quirky yet effective solution to a fully immersive digital experience was effective in its time, but so much innovation has materialised in front of our eyes, into our ears, and even on our hands and fingertips with the acceleration of immersive technology since those halcyon days. I sometimes like to think that our friend in the box went on to help Google with their Google Cardboard experiment or worked on the more recent Nintendo Switch VR Kit – a similar ‘box around a screen’ concept. While a VR headset may seem like a giant leap from a cardboard box, they both serve the same fundamental purpose—offering an escape into a world where you can be your most productive, efficient, and engaged self.

At Unipro we create immersive and interactive experiences, with a particular focus on the healthcare industry. Our portfolio includes 3D virtual tours of medical labs that help to teach and inspire medical professionals, digital interactive games and quizzes for use at exhibitions that help businesses increase engagement and stand out from their competitors. At Unipro we feel strongly about creating engaging content. With our technical know-how we can develop immersive and interactive experiences bringing content to life. To discover more contact us today.