Harnessing mobile augmented reality technology to engage a visual culture

Emporia State University set out to enhance student interaction and learning through the use of Augmented Reality.

Emporia State University set out to offer patrons interactive experiences with special collections.

Archivists and special collections librarians, like other information professionals, manage, organise and provide access to a variety of resources. A primary challenge these professionals face is balancing the preservation and security needs of the materials under their care with the accessibility their patrons expect. How often have you wished there was a better way to let delicate manuscripts, rare books and archival materials perform for patrons, while staying mindful of their care? 

Utilising mobile, augmented reality technology to bring these objects to life, ESU Special Collections and Archives merged the boundary between the physical and virtual worlds and offered patrons and visitors the opportunity to go beyond walking through stationary exhibits of artifacts, to a full interactive experience. Imagine an easy way for a handwritten music score or historic artifact to tell its story without requiring patrons to read any labels; a method that allows the object to break free of the display case in an explosion of audio, video and images.

Based on observations we made of patron interactions occurring in our library, we perceived a strong self-sufficient culture that we wanted to support. Considering that it is our self-sufficient patrons who are now an under-served population, we wanted to explore modes offering them increased accessibility while being mindful of their information independence. Equally mindful of an increasing mobile population we focused our efforts on how the ESU Special Collections and Archives might achieve these goals through mobile technology.

Enter augmented reality, a way of enhancing the real world by adding a computer-generated element that provides additional information and increases human interaction. With the rise of mobile technology, the use of augmented reality has become easier and more cost effective through the development of mobile applications. Two such apps we explored were Aurasma and Layar. Although we successfully engaged patrons with both, each had its own pros and cons.

Apps like Aurasma and Layar allow patrons to experience an interactive, multimedia exhibit by simply focusing their mobile device on a static object. This offers new opportunities for Special Collections and Archives to safely invite patrons behind the walls of display cases to actively engage in learning more about the objects on exhibit. Every object or place tells a story that is lost without exploration. Augmented reality gives patrons the opportunity to view specialised content not available to the general public. Watching how students interacted with their space while using Aurasma and Layar in the Special Collections and Archives raises new questions about the use of augmented reality beyond libraries and archives. 

Further study is needed to realise the full potential of augmented reality in higher education. Moving forward, apps like Aurasma and Layar could conceivably change how students learn and interact with their environment by shattering traditional learning models, where students are receivers of information, to instead empower students to become gatherers of information who actively contribute to the creation of knowledge. We believe that the future of education depends on change. With education budgets rapidly diminishing, free mobile software offers the possibility of a low-cost, curricular-wide enhancement to education. Just as the ESU Special Collections and Archives enhanced student interaction and learning through augmented reality, higher education has the opportunity to connect students to new ways of learning and processing information.

Earl Givens is Assistant Professor of Information Literacy and Technology and Digital Resources Librarian at Emporia State University, USA. 

Ashley Todd-Diaz is Assistant Professor and Curator of Special Collections and Archives at Emporia State University, USA.

Image courtesy of tedeytan via Flickr.