Spatial computing integrates traditional computing and programming with three-dimensional space, revolutionising user interfaces, and providing unique opportunities for countries like India to apply its transformative benefits to the education sector. Two main facets of this form of computing are augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). AR entails overlaying digitally created objects in the user’s real-life environment, experienced through a phone screen, specific eyeglasses, or headsets. VR involves creating a computer-generated, fictional three-dimensional space in the user’s immediate vicinity, witnessed through headsets that cover one’s entire field of view.
As the government implements various digital education initiatives, there could be potential for AR and VR (together known as mixed reality or MR) to play a transformational role in the future.
Besides providing uniquely immersive gaming or entertainment experiences, AR and VR’s potential to be integrated into education is substantial. By immersing students in virtual environments, VR offers captivating interactive learning experiences that enhance comprehension and knowledge retention. Likewise, by allowing students to physically experience objects like cells, experimental setups, and planets, AR can make theoretical concepts easier to understand. India's education system currently faces challenges of access, equity, quality, and relevance. As the government implements various digital education initiatives, there could be potential for AR and VR (together known as mixed reality or MR) to play a transformational role in the future.
Spatial computing, including VR and AR, gained significant public attention in 2016 with the release of the 'Oculus Rift'
by Oculus (now owned by Meta and renamed to Meta Quest
) that allowed seamless interaction of the physical with the virtual. This VR headset provided users with a novel, immersive experience, transporting them into a three-dimensional fictional world with which they could interact via hand controllers. Following this, numerous companies, such as Microsoft
, and Epson
, entered the market with their own devices, aiming to capitalise on the promising industry.
Spatial computing and education
The global adoption of new technologies in education is accelerating. Stanford School of Business has been offering a VR-based programme
since 2016. Additionally, the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN
) has developed a virtual campus
, available year-round for lectures, events, networking, and their annual conference.
VR adoption in the medical field is also growing rapidly, with notable collaborations and applications. For example, Oxford Medical Simulations partnered with prestigious universities like Oxford, UCLA, John Hopkins, and NYU to develop VR medical training experiences
for nursing, diagnosis, and patient care.
Microsoft highlights the positive impact of mixed reality in education, citing a 22-percent increase in student test scores and a 35-percent improvement in student engagement.
AR/VR implementations have extended beyond STEM subjects, with an emphasis on utilising these technologies for soft skills training. The ESADE Business School
is adopting virtual reality content to offer students, faculty, and staff engaging experiences in a virtual campus
where “they can interact with others, learn about the metaverse’s practical applicability and carry out experiments.” This enhances employability and “disruptive” skill development.
Furthermore, companies like Microsoft have also demonstrated their perspective on mixed reality’s role in education. Microsoft highlights the positive impact of mixed reality in education, citing a 22-percent increase in student test scores
and a 35-percent improvement in student engagement. They also suggest that the HoloLens can enhance educator productivity
by reducing training time. Google’s spatial computing technologies, Cardboard
and Tilt Brush
, have also provided students with a more engaging educational experience
. Despite the benefits of its utilisation in education, the MR industry has declined over the last few years. A possible reinvigoration of this space occurred during Apple's WWDC23
on 5 June 2023, with the unveiling of their Vision Pro
headset. Apple positioned it as the future of spatial computing, prompting a reconsideration of MR’s impact on crucial sectors like education.
Large-scale utilisation of devices such as Apple’s Vision Pro presents various challenges. Firstly, only those who can afford this US$3,500 headset
would enjoy the benefits of such technology. Although Apple is reportedly developing a more affordable headset
, in a country like India, the consumption of such a product would only highlight the nation’s income disparity. Despite other headsets being less expensive, the means to purchase these devices remain in a very small part of the Indian population. With less than 1 percent of the nation even being able to afford an iPhone, there is no doubt that only the wealthiest would reap the benefits of modern spatial computing technology, widening the digital divide. Those in the most expensive institutes would have a competitive advantage with regard to the quality of education and learning. If only students from the most affluent backgrounds could access more interactive lessons and learn better, they would have an advantage in skill development and prospects for higher education and employment. This would limit the possibilities of career advancement for other students, exacerbating economic inequality in the long run.
Those in the most expensive institutes would have a competitive advantage with regard to the quality of education and learning.
On the other hand, initiatives such as the research conducted by IIT Madras
to provide simplified learning models to enhance competency in rural areas would be incredibly beneficial to promote spatial computing integration in education, specifically for the underprivileged living in rural areas. Furthermore, the incubation provided by IIT Bhubaneswar
to Indian AR/VR start-ups in the form of technical mentorship, conferences, networking, etc., is another positive step to support the growth of the spatial computing industry in India at the appropriate stage of innovative start-ups. These approaches ensure far-reaching access to technology that could increase education opportunities and enhance the quality of life of individuals from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.
Integrating spatial computing in educational institutions also poses a risk to privacy. For instance, to provide the user experience that the Vision Pro does, the device has 12 cameras and six microphones, all constantly recording the user’s eyes, voice, and immediate vicinity when in use. This is akin to every other AR/VR headset, each requiring cameras and mics for its operation, constantly tracking vast amounts of personal information and biometric data, potentially risking the users’ privacy and security. It is then essential for legislation to implement strict rules and laws that prevent the non-consensual sharing of private data and compel organisations to minimise the risk of security breaches and resultant identity theft.
This is akin to every other AR/VR headset, each requiring cameras and mics for its operation, constantly tracking vast amounts of personal information and biometric data, potentially risking the users’ privacy and security.
Furthermore, MR devices require students to wear headsets that separate them from their external surroundings even more than smartphones today already do. Spatial computing, and students’ addiction to it, therefore, lends itself to the risk of social isolation. Such a reduction in social interaction could affect students’ mental health, leading to isolation and loneliness, emotional detachment, and decreased empathy.
Facing the Reality
MR may be an intriguing gimmick to some, but it offers numerous possibilities for how we use technology today. Simultaneously, however, the promises are shadowed by many risks and disadvantages that could affect us at an individual and societal level. Either way, they have the scope of altering our future forever.
Apart from IIT Madras’ research as mentioned above, and IIT Bhubaneswar’s AR/VR start-up incubation, there is significant development domestically to foster appropriate progress in the integration of spatial computing in education. Citizen and government support for this emerging technology as a tool for national development is evident through the Indian government’s campaign to aid AR/VR start-ups to demonstrate AR/VR technology
during Digital India Week in 2022. MR technology, therefore, shows significant promise for its incorporation into the Digital India initiative.
As technology advances rapidly, it is crucial to align its progress with the country’s overall development goals. With its unique demographic dividend, India has the potential to emerge as a global leader in the years and decades ahead, and education can catalyse this transformation. Therefore, prioritising education is paramount, recognising its pivotal role in shaping the future and unlocking the nation's potential.
Aryan Kaushal is an intern with the Geoeconomics Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
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