Navigating the Realities: A Q&A Guide to Immersive Educational Experiences with Mike O’Neal, Step Into Biology’s Director of Product

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In today's education technological landscape, there are various “realities” to choose from. Each of them has subtle differences, and gaining a clear understanding of these nuances will help in making decisions about which one is best suited for your classroom. To answer some of the most common questions, we sat down with Mike O’Neal, the Director of Product for Step Into Biology and one of its founding visionaries. Mike explains the different types of realities and impact they have on immersive educational experiences.

What distinguishes Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)?

"VR involves replacing the real-world environment with a virtual one through a headset. AR and MR, on the other hand, add virtual elements to the existing real world, with MR allowing for more profound interactions like objects bouncing off physical surfaces."

Why is it crucial to choose the right immersive reality for educational applications and what should be considered regarding their specific strengths, weaknesses, and use cases?

"Selecting the appropriate reality is pivotal for a productive and positive immersive experience. Each reality has unique strengths and weaknesses that should align with specific educational needs.  

For the Step Into Biology app, we chose tablet-based AR (and sometimes technically MR as well). Virtual reality is great for full immersion, but it can cause discomfort and nausea for some people. Also, headsets can be expensive, and can heat up a lot while they are being worn. They also do not allow you to see where you are walking and can lead to tripping and crashing. Headset based AR and MR is relatively new. Several iterations have come out in the past few years, but no one solution has really caught hold yet. Tablet-based AR, however, can be used on devices that many people (including middle school and high school students) already own or are used to working on. Additionally, most people are already familiar with common gestures and controls for these devices."

Can you highlight the pros and cons of Virtual Reality (VR) in comparison to tablet-based Augmented Reality (AR) for educational purposes?

"While VR offers a deeply immersive experience, it comes with drawbacks in addition to the physical discomfort I mentioned. When you interact with other people in VR, you see an avatar. Public VR avatars are overly simplistic, sometimes missing limbs and having frozen expressions. This makes it a much less collaborative experience in the education setting. Tablet-based AR, however, is more accessible and user-friendly. Additionally, when utilizing augmented reality your brain does not get crossed signals that can cause queasiness, and nothing covers your eyes to create claustrophobia."

Step into Biology is an augmented reality app. What sets Step Into Biology apart from other AR applications?

"Step Into Biology stands out with its collaborative, multiplayer experience, allowing users to interact with virtual material together. This promotes human-to-human communication, fostering collaboration and engagement in the educational process.  In Step into Biology, you can see your collaborators on the phone or tablet in real time by interacting with the virtual material and looking at them. Full human to human communication is a crucial element of teaching and Step Into Biology utilizes AR."

How does Step Into Biology address concerns about classroom distractions related to devices?

"Devices can be a distraction, and we understand some schools do ban them, but Step Into Biology virtual field trips get people out of their seats and moving around. SIB encourages active learning and boosting concentration, thereby minimizing distractions associated with device use."

In what ways does tablet-based AR offer a safer classroom choice compared to VR, and how does it contribute to an improved learning environment?

"Tablet-based AR is a safer choice for classrooms, eliminating discomfort and claustrophobia associated with VR. Users remain rooted in the real world, reducing the risk of accidents and improving the overall learning environment. It is also much easier for students to walk around a space with tablet-based AR, and importantly you can see where your feet are going, avoiding tripping and crashing."

How does Step Into Biology fosters collaboration and engagement among students, particularly through its AR effects?

"Step Into Biology's multiplayer experience allows students to see each other interacting with the same material, promoting collaboration, communication, and a more engaging learning experience. There is also a practice section that is ungraded, so students can work in groups when answering questions on the content they just experienced."

Why do you recommend educators experience Step Into Biology firsthand?

"Encountering AR firsthand is quite distinct from merely observing it in a video; it provides a genuine sense of presence that sets it apart from other immersive encounters. That is why we encourage educators to try Step Into Biology for themselves. Step Into Biology provides a unique and immersive encounter, different from traditional methods or VR headsets. Educators will benefit from witnessing the collaborative, multiplayer AR effects, which potentially will change their perspective on immersive learning. I encourage all educators to experience Step Into Biology and its AR effect firsthand. If you have had negative experiences with other virtual educational tools or VR headsets, give our app a try - I think we can change your mind! Download our Animal Cell field trip for free on the App Store."

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