Author(s): Peter Bryer
For medical and biology students, learning detailed human anatomy can be a tedious process. There are textbooks, flash cards and posters, and there's lots of memorisation. Microsoft has partnered with Case Western Reserve University to create an augmented reality (AR) tool to make the process interactive and more enjoyable, underlining the potential of the technology in education.
Microsoft unveiled its HoloLens smart glasses at the beginning of 2015, demonstrating the device as a new computing platform rather than just an accessory. Augmented reality has had its starts and stops over the years, but Microsoft's stand-alone holographic headset appeared to push the concept further than any product to date. It's been an impressive vision so far.
Entertainment and enterprise uses for HoloLens were demonstrated early on, but opportunities for augmented reality in education have been clear from the start. The ability to hover labels and instructions over complex objects could increase clarity and engagement in learning. The use of 3D could move course literature from flat to floating.
The HoloLens anatomy demo is an indication that course literature can be complemented with holographic content, and augmented reality can be used a serious instructional tool. Devices like the HoloLens could become the new PC in the classroom, adding a digital coating to the real world.
Microsoft and Case Western Reserve's Minority Report-flavoured anatomy application allows students to view the body in layers and from different angles. The partners also envision instructors and students interacting together with the wearable devices. This is a limited trial, and company YouTube videos usually paint a rosy picture, but it's not hard to see a potential shift in education.
It would be tempting to dismiss HoloLens as another company science project, particularly after the mixed reviews of Google Glass. But the business and end-user interest and needs here are real. Augmented reality has been used for more than half a century in segments like the military, and the trickle-down effect is accelerating (see Daily Insight: A Vision of Higher Learning).
The HoloLens platform could offer opportunities for a new generation of educational content. Classic university textbooks could soon come with AR apps, just as many are currently complemented with online content.
AR is a new tool and will take time to get right, but it's forward from here. Microsoft has provided us with a new body of evidence, and appears to be in the AR lead.