Jul 09 2024

What Is Spatial Computing’s Future in Higher Education?

Artificial intelligence expands possibilities for extended reality in higher education.

There’s been buzz around spatial computing since Apple released its Vision Pro advanced mixed reality headset, but the concept is not new. It refers to the blending of the physical and digital worlds, an umbrella term for virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies, all of which have been used in higher education for many years. The concept of spatial computing simply means “you’re interacting with digital content in an immersive fashion. The content surrounds you. You feel really present in the headset because there are no other distractions,” says Cortney Harding, spatial computing expert and head of immersive content at Virti.

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Spatial Computing Technologies Allow Realistic World-Building

While the term has been around for decades, the applications for spatial computing are evolving faster than ever. The technology is already being used to create AI-powered and lifelike virtual avatars, also known as human avatars, which students can use to converse. For example, a business school student can practice a negotiation with a virtual avatar, an interaction that can take place anytime, anywhere and as often as needed — something not really possible with a human classmate.

At The Ohio State University, one Italian language professor is using video content filmed with a 360-degree camera while on sabbatical in Italy. The content allows students to practice reading, grammar and conversation skills in a realistic setting, such as ordering from a waiter at a restaurant in Italy.

Although AI is becoming a part of the evolution of spatial computing, Harding says that another application of the tech — world building — is partly a reaction to students’ use of ChatGPT for assignments.

“Educators are frustrated because they'll give students an essay topic, students feed that into ChatGPT, clean up the grammar and essentially, they’re not learning anything,” Harding says. “I think it’s time for a fundamental rethink of some of this stuff, and that's where world building comes in.”

An English professor could ask students to write 1,000 words on the theme of marriage in a Jane Austen novel, which could easily be done in ChatGPT. But building a world around that time period and interacting with it, Harding points out, is an opportunity to prove students’ understanding of the theme and ability to think critically.

LEARN MORE: AI-driven analytics help The Ohio State University manage stadium crowds.

Spatial Computing Technology Comes with Challenges

As more universities embrace spatial computing — for example, creating a digital twin of a renowned university lab — it opens up access to higher-quality educational resources for students and professors anywhere in the world.

But equipment costs remain a constraint. Expensive headsets don't yet seem like a worthwhile investment if they are used only a few times a semester, but more frequent use would require more content — and currently, there isn't much of it. However, according to Harding, that is bound to change over the next five years as more people learn the basics.

To that end, Harding suggests that university administrators get headsets (used or new) for their departments or labs “and start playing with them. What it comes down to is that people haven't experienced the technology, so it’s very theoretical to them. Spend some time in a headset, because that’s hopefully going to spark a lot of ideas.”

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