Research · Thought leadership

Learning in the Metaverse

Students using wearable technology

Professor Fridolin Wild discusses why the time is right for learning in the metaverse to be rolled out into the mainstream.

Professor Fridolin Wild, Lead of the Performance Augmentation Lab (PAL) at the OU's Institute of Educational Technology, will be a keynote speaker at the Digital Learning Summit, which takes place on Wednesday 11 May 2022.  

At the summit, organised by Integrated Systems Europe, Fridolin will discuss his GhostTrack technology, a mode within the OU's flagship mixed-reality MirageXR app which supports course designers to create training packages with 4D holographic projections.

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During his career, Fridolin has led numerous EU, European Space Agency and nationally funded research projects. He currently leads a number of special interest groups and working groups on topics related to wearable technology, augmented reality and standards. See the projects Fridolin works on at The Open University on his IET Profile.

Discussing the learning contexts that Fridolin is working in, he shared:

"My work is heavily focused on rapid reskilling for workforce development. I want to close the gap between abstract knowledge and its practical application."

"I’m looking at radically new ways of linking directly from knowing something ‘in principle’ to being able to apply that knowledge in practice. The use of augmented reality can help us accelerate learning, speeding up the process of turning something learned in the classroom into demonstrable competencies."

"The ‘ghost in the machine’ that I will be presenting at the Digital Learning Summit is an avatar that can provide just-in-time instruction, for example to someone using complicated machinery. ‘GhostTrack’ technology allows the learner to be guided by an expert using 4D holographic projection."

"The integrated experience capture links competence with performance, which is key in autonomous self-improvement."

When introducing the technology to audiences of learners, researchers and tech-enthusiasts, Fridolin often "uses magic as a metaphor to explain the idea of ‘reality as a platform’; how to change the world without changing it". Fridolin commented:

"This is far from being just a party trick, though. We are way past the pilot stage. Learning in the metaverse is something we are doing today."

"We have tested this with a wide range of industries and job roles. It has been tested with radiologists, aeroplane maintenance engineers, stagehands, furniture production, helicopter production, sewing, maintenance of weaving mills and quality assurance of cars. We have even run pilots for space: training astronauts and engineers.

"One of the main aims of this research is to make it easy. The aim is that authoring this type of content, performance capture and step-by-step guidance by an expert, should be as easy as explaining to someone.

"We have already made enormous progress: someone with experience of the technology can produce a good quality learning activity in a few hours. As a rule of thumb, 30 minutes’ consumption should equal about two hours’ production time.

"Previously, you needed both subject matter experts and instructional designers but this is changing rapidly. Our latest trials resulted in an academic radiologist colleague describing this as a ‘game changer’ because they were able to create learning content without a developer or instructional designer."

On the technology and standards which are the foundation of this research, Fridolin added:

"The IEEE ARLEM (augmented reality learning experience models) working group is developing an overarching conceptual model that describes interactions between the physical world, the user and digital information."

"I have been working on the Mirage XR open source platform for several years now, which is a flagship implementation of the standard. Mirage XR is a holographic authoring tool and player for mixed reality experiences. It can be used to create and teach details of ‘how to’ procedures fast, in any environment."

"We are solving the problem that sequencing standards for this type of content usually lack: the capability and flexibility to be executed in the real world. Standard zipped data packages hold and transfer all of the content, including readings of body movements, workflow descriptions and bindings to the real world, so that future workplaces can easily bridge digital information across into real-world execution."

In terms of the learning experience, Fridolin added further:

"As well as trials in higher education, we have been doing a public beta pilot for over a year and are about to run some pilots with schools."

"It’s not an everyday experience for all learners. Some people who are very tech savvy take to it immediately, whereas with other students you may need to spend 20 minutes explaining to them how to use smart glasses."

"Given the scale of our testing, we are however confident that this is ready for large-scale rollout. We have research papers looking at the impact on retention, engagement, satisfaction and engagement levels and the results are looking great.

"At The Open University, UK, we are already planning to make this available as a standard feature in our learning platform. By the end of this year, we hope to have a five-year plan to create content for all subject areas, covering our 175,000 students."

On the topic of whether digital poverty can be a barrier to the next generation using learning resources, Fridolin added:

"We are very conscious of this issue. I was consulted by the team that produced a report on digital poverty for the UK higher education sector in 2020."

"We are not where we hoped we would be with smart glasses. Hardware manufacturers sold several hundreds of thousands of devices in 2021, with sales split across several vendors and platforms. Good smart glasses are still relatively expensive, similar to a pricey notebook, so the premium experience is still limited in numbers and does not stand up in mass reach to the AR-enabled smartphone market, which grew to over a billion devices in 2021."

"Even so, there are possible solutions such as collaboration with public libraries to loan smart glasses. We have seen teaching hospitals contract with service providers who loan, ship and clean the glasses. The idea of a skills library to roll out this kind of kit is interesting.

"The market situation pushed us to look at other devices. We have developed for iOS and Android and it is now seamless on those devices, which makes it far-reaching.

"Oddly enough, tablets and phones tend to be relatively high quality in poor areas as they are the user’s main device, replacing laptop or desktop computers.

"Not everyone changes their phone every year though, and we have tried as far as possible to be compatible with older devices. In general, anything five to seven years old is still supported. We support any Apple product from 2014 onwards and any Android product from 2016 onwards.

"You will always find cheaper phones without a gyroscope or with a poor camera. A €40 phone may well not give you a proper AR experience and we are conscious of the need to put support in place for students who can’t upgrade their phone.

"Making next-generation learning accessible to all is something that the industry and learning providers need to work at. Equipment isn’t the only issue: adequate study space is just as important. Our vision of the future can’t simply involve locking people in a simulation. It’s a problem if someone is moving through your holograms, or making noise during your Zoom call, or if you have no clear space to write notes."

In closing, looking ahead to what is next for this innovative work, Fridolin shared:

"We want to get this type of learning into the mainstream. We have the technology, the pilots, the outreach and the support so, if we can’t make it happen now, then when?"

"I’m a huge fan of open source and it is in the spirit of The Open University. We have to get technologies out there. The pandemic has shown the need for this. Now is the time to make the metaverse open before the market shuts it down."

Fridolin will present his research at the Digital Learning Summit, which takes place on Wednesday 11 May 2022 at Integrated Systems Europe 22. Click here to join Fridolin at the summit.