Future Prospects and Considerations for AR and VR in Higher Education Academic Technology

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Imagining how the future might unfold, especially for emerging technologies like AR and VR, can help prepare for what does end up happening.

Head wearing VR headset which dissolves into pixels.
Credit: Michal Bednarek / Shutterstock.com © 2023

As higher education institutions have returned to in-person activities in the wake of the pandemic, there is more awareness than ever before of information technology's importance in supporting the academic mission. Considering which technologies and services are needed to provide resilient support for the new normal, many rightly wonder whether and how augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technologies could play significant roles in teaching, learning, and research practices going forward. As with many new technological forms, AR and VR initially hold great promise but also raise crucial policy choices and program challenges ahead of any widespread adoption in higher education settings.

Examining current features of the AR and VR landscape, we consider here some relevant technological trends and emerging issues. Along the way, we share insights into how and why the future might play out in our particular setting at UC Berkeley while keeping a critical eye on institutional must-haves such as health and safety, security and privacy, and accessibility. To organize our analysis and musing about the coming years, we employ a framework borrowed loosely from futures studies.Footnote1 In particular, we find inspiration in futures scenario development as a way of organizing our thoughts about various AR and VR pathways that we could end up following in the next five to ten years. As such, we first look to historical patterns over previous decades, especially the extraordinary growth of visualization technologies that in many ways provide the heritage for today's AR and VR. We also draw upon our experiences over the past five years in supporting AR and VR pilots in research, teaching, and learning. Throughout this analysis, we maintain a particular focus on how AR and VR applications might span the border from research activities into the curriculum, especially in terms of visualization. To that end, we are on the lookout for early trend indicators that can help us forecast various plausible adoption scenarios for what might happen, while also helping us define our aspirations for optimal AR and VR adoption in our setting and perhaps in higher education in general.

AR and VR: Terms, Definitions, Modes, and Characteristics

The many different AR and VR devices and applications available are nearly uncountable today. At a high level, it is helpful to remember that AR and VR are not two mutually exclusive categories. We can see such a varied mix from augmented reality on the IKEA furniture smartphone app, where the virtual augments the real, to immersive virtual reality games such as Beat Saber. Along these intersecting AR and VR dimensions, we find mixed reality desktop portals and online collaborative meeting spaces like JoinXR or Microsoft Mesh, where the virtual augments the real or the real can augment the virtual. AR and VR experiences seem to fall along a broad continuum bracketed at each end, simply, by unmediated real-world experiences and totally immersive virtual experiences.Footnote2 Practically speaking, when mapped to various consumer AR and VR devices, these modes do not line up neatly with the surface label (i.e., augmented reality versus virtual reality equipment). Instead, the categories often become intertwined. There are augmented reality experiences of illusory worlds, such as Pokémon GO, where people experience illusions placed in the real world. Similarly, there are fully immersive experiences of the real world, such as 3D surgical brain visualizations generated from MRI scans or high-fidelity photogrammetry and 360-degree scans. Our point here is that because AR and VR do not necessarily represent mutually exclusive options, we lump them together throughout most of our discussion. Where appropriate, we separate them to call out their important differences.

Using a Futures Framework to Develop Our Strategy

One thing about AR and VR is for certain: consumer device offerings are rapidly becoming lighter, easier to use, and less expensive. It is likely that pilot projects by early adopters will increase across higher education in the near term. If they haven't already, academic technology organizations will soon find themselves needing to consider for the long term what service offerings to initiate, which platforms to support, and, most importantly, what policies to apply.

Yet, whether and how AR and VR will fundamentally influence research, teaching, and learning in the next decade is still up in the air. Seeking a crystal-ball view of AR and VR product adoption for academic technology planning purposes would be unavailing. Well-respected technological research firms certainly do offer us a steady stream of market insights and product predictions, but their brand of augury tends to look very broadly across global consumer trends and industries. Yet, if there's one reliable observation ever to be made about higher education it's that enterprise technology does not imitate what happens in other sectors, especially when it comes to acquisition. Behaviors and roles are more convoluted, for starters. Faculty and graduate students use a mix of personal and institutionally provided devices, depending on the task at hand (e.g., teaching, research, administrative). Our customers (i.e., students) bring their own devices; use institutionally provided devices in dorms, labs, or libraries; and at certain hours of the day might even switch over to using a technology provided to them in a student-employee role. So while the growth of the consumer technology product marketplace certainly has an enabling effect, technology purchasing choices, funding sources, and purposes usually remain highly varied, complex, and distributed at most higher education institutions—to the chagrin of many a campus CIO. Extrapolations and prognostications derived from general market indicators tend not to map very well to higher education settings.

How then to plan? Rather than trying to place bets, we have found it beneficial to employ methods and approaches from the field of futures studies. Although future studies is better known in corporate and government strategic planning circles, educational technologists have actually been using such approaches for decades.Footnote3 A recent prominent example can be found in the methodology of the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report starting in 2020.Footnote4 To help cope with the uncertainty that lies ahead, futures studies techniques get us away from the default habit of reading tea leaves. With futures methodology as a guide, we instead develop insights from a variety of plausible futures, thereby discerning a much wider and diverse range of possible outcomes. There is no canonical approach to futures studies in general or scenario-building in particular. For our purposes, we have settled on 4 Steps to the Future: A Quick and Clean Guide to Creating Foresight by Richard Lum, which we have loosely adopted.Footnote5 Devising plausible scenarios about how AR and VR use might unfold in our setting helps us anticipate, sort through, and shape more flexible organizational processes, strategies, and outcomes.

The Past: How Display Technology Changed Visualization

Futures methodologies require a look back before looking ahead, so our development of foresight into how the new augmented and virtual paradigms might play out begins with a whirlwind reflection on how visualization technologies for presenting and exploring information changed over the years within the higher education context of research, teaching, and learning.

The visual display, visual explanation, and envisioning of information are obviously central to many research, teaching, and learning activities. Across the past five decades, many new technology paradigms contributed to foundational shifts in higher education research and teaching in general and visualization practices. These technological changes include not only prominent new digital forms (e.g., computer graphics) but also profound changes in information display (i.e., image and video presentation technologies). Along with the rise of personal computing came the need and capacity in academic settings for shared viewing of visualization for presentation and exploration. The development of projection technologies in the 1980s and 1990s helped usher in something we find commonplace today: the use of large, high-resolution color digital projectors and displays in our academic laboratories, classrooms, lecture halls, and conference rooms (see figure 1).

Figure 1. A Display-Rich Contemporary Classroom Environment
Photograph of a classroom with students working at several tables, two large monitors mounted on the wall, and a camera mounted on a tripod.
Credit: UC Berkeley. Reprinted with permission.

In miniaturized form, many of the same display breakthroughs that allowed for the digital projection and display revolution today serve as the enabling technologies inside smartphones and tablets, as well as AR and VR headsets and glasses. Teeny-tiny digital projectors and micro LED and liquid crystal panels enable lightweight, near-eye displays.Footnote6 The rise of AR and VR could also someday allow for similarly fundamental changes in how we view and share information as day-to-day activities in the academy, from the research lab to the undergraduate classroom. However, new technologies don't simply impact our activities, especially not the world of the academy. It remains to be seen whether and how AR and VR technologies will influence academic visualization activities to the profound extent that, say, their projection-display ancestors did. Moreover, while digital display technologies are ubiquitous on campus, it's worth noting that they have not swept away centuries-old underlying communication forms altogether. Though now digital, the underlying media (i.e., text, graphs, tables, diagrams, images) around which researchers, teachers, and students in higher education coordinate their scholarly activities have been supplemented, but not superseded, by display capabilities. Scholarly evidence and argumentation that focus on complexity typically involve multiple forms of discourse. In modern scientific research, for instance, about a quarter of the content in a typical scholarly publication consists of graphs, tables, diagrams, and images. The other three-quarters is made up of words. As in the past, the trick for incorporating any new technology-based visualization medium will always be to find its unique value.Footnote7

The Present: Emerging AR and VR Practices

Having looked to the past for relevant patterns, we turn next to looking around in the present at whether and how those patterns continue, as well as for signs of new forces emerging. In Lum's futures approach, the present state can be viewed through a lens that refracts continuities of past trends and emerging issues, as well as so-called stabilities that might slow or even stave off change. In the case of AR and VR, present-day adoption might offer improvements in visualization for display and exploration, but we also detect certain stabilities in our context that will temper adoption. Examples of such stabilities include the previously mentioned traditional preference for face-to-face interactions, an unrelenting attachment to traditional print and graphic formats, and a utilitarian stance that requires audiovisual technologies to adaptively fit traditional classroom arrangements with little or no alteration to the overall layout. These are only a few of the stabilities that would inhibit adoption.

Currently, enthusiasm about AR and VR in higher education is somewhat tempered by the slow growth of off-the-shelf educational content. Not surprisingly, entertainment applications dominate the general consumer AR and VR market. That said, educational content applications already available range across many interesting categories such as virtual tours, science simulations, interactive historical reenactment, and role play, the last of which includes compellingly impactful explorations of perspective-taking and empathy experiences. These early educational products offer engaging virtual experiences of places that never existed (e.g., an otherworldly high school in Cosmonious High), places that exist but that cannot be visited directly in real life (e.g., other planets, ocean depths, molecules), places or events that no longer exist, or simulations of activities in places that involve scarce, expensive, or hazardous resources (e.g., simulated lab or clinical activities).

Although AR and VR educational content for higher education remains relatively limited at the moment, there is growing interest in using these technologies in the classroom. Some universities and colleges had already begun to incorporate AR and VR into their curricula, often through partnerships with technology companies or startups. For example, health science programs are beginning to explore AR and VR simulations to help students learn basic anatomy, kinesiology, and even bedside manner. An important consideration is how easy these applications are to use and whether students find them engaging and immersive. This factor might involve conducting user testing to identify any usability issues or surveying students to get their feedback on the application's user experience. Also, AR and VR applications are highly dependent on hardware and software, so it's important to evaluate whether the application is reliable and performs well on a range of devices. Of course, the most important factor to consider is whether an AR or VR application is effective in achieving the desired learning outcomes. Validating this concern might involve measuring student performance on tests or assessments before and after using the application or conducting surveys or focus groups to gauge student perceptions of the technology's impact on learning or even a student's increased motivation around a topic.Footnote8 Along with generally supporting collaboration and community-building work, the EDUCAUSE XR (Extended Reality) Community Group provides an excellent forum for inquiring about and tracking such applications and all of the concerns mentioned above.Footnote9

As mentioned, the limited amount of commercially produced AR and VR educational content has slowed uptake in academic settings to some extent. As an alternative to waiting for the right premade content to appear, some early adopters develop their own content. Companies specifically focused on developing AR and VR educational content for higher education work with subject-matter experts and educators to create immersive experiences that are designed to enhance learning outcomes. These custom AR and VR applications can be expensive to develop and implement, of course, so a major up-front consideration is whether the benefits of using the technology really outweigh the costs.

At UC Berkeley, we are seeing signs of a more do-it-yourself approach that's partly due to the combination of freely available content creation tools (e.g., Unity), 3D digitization technologies like photogrammetry, and pools of talented student developers. Locally-built custom AR and VR experiences are enabling university museums, for instance, to make their collections available through both in-person and remote immersive experiences that provide novel educational experiences. These early innovative projects share an interest in how AR and VR can transform visualization activities by broadening the range of experiential modalities for exploring and visualizing artifacts, volumes, dimensions, abstractions, data concepts, etc. Early adoption of AR and VR can be found especially in disciplines that have always had an appetite for new visualization technologies.

For example, UC Berkeley Architecture Professor Luisa Caldas and her colleagues are reinventing architectural design processes by developing virtual reality tools and simulation approaches such as immersive sketching, structural energy analysis, and natural light optimizations.Footnote10 In effect, their research and development efforts aim to evolve the architectural design process, using virtual reality visualizations to provide an unprecedented sense of presence, scale, and depth of various stakeholders of building projects (see figure 2). These AR and VR transformative techniques developed in the academic research context are starting to shape the future of the discipline's practices first and foremost as they are taken up by students, who are introduced to cutting-edge approaches to using virtual reality in collaborative design and prototyping activities.Footnote11

Figure 2. Professor Caldas and Her Students During a Design Review in Virtual Reality
Photograph of an instructor wearing a VR headset standing in front of a small classroom of students, all of whom are also wearing VR headsets.
Credit: UC Berkeley. Reprinted with permission.

In a different field, Egyptologist Rita Lucarelli uses 3D modeling technologies to understand the spatiality and materiality of inscriptions from ancient Egyptian texts as found on sarcophagi and other objects uncovered in excavated funerary contexts.Footnote12 Photogrammetry and 3D visualizations enable the study of inscribed objects by supplementing the 3D models with annotations providing text transcription, transliteration, and translation. Her colleague Elaine Sullivan of UC Santa Cruz uses 3D technologies and geographic information systems to create interactive models that can be navigated through space and time to explore the evolution of the Egyptian burial site.Footnote13 The two scholars also led a team that developed an educational interactive VR experience based on their combined work, allowing users to navigate from the surface-level cemetery landscape down into the tomb to view the sarcophagus lid, on which it is possible to point to the text and see annotations. Students have traditionally been restricted to experiencing artifacts in a piecemeal fashion either in museums or in flat photo reproductions in print media. The "Return to the Tomb" project suggests new ways to overcome such limitations through re-contextualization via virtual reality, allowing students to experience archeology holistically and in situ (see figure 3).

Figure 3. A Scene from the "Return to the Tomb" Virtual Reality Experience
Screen shot from a VR experience showing a sarcophagus along with a panel on the side that shows translations of the hieroglyphics that are on the sarcophagus lid.
Credit: Screen capture created by the authors.

Finally, for physical scientists who focus on the molecular realm at the micro and nano scale every day, visualization platforms such as ChimeraX and Nanome support VR and AR as display options, allowing researchers to explore molecular structures together in collaborative virtual space.Footnote14 These tools are also being explored for their potential value in the curriculum, especially as digital learning tools to help novice students through the traditional challenges of learning the spatial representation of chemicals.Footnote15 In line with the broader trend of exploratory and presentation visualization, the use of ChimeraX and Nanome at UC Berkeley already extends outside the research labs and into instructional settings (see figure 4).

Figure 4. Users Exploring Molecular Design in Virtual Reality with Nanome
Screen shot of an AR/VR application that teaches molecular design.
Credit: Nanome, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Comparing this present state with how display technologies progressed within the higher education space over the previous decades, it's too early to say how similar patterns of innovation and adoption will play out in the future with AR and VR. New technology paradigms often appear as puzzles for early adopters as they try to figure out effective and appropriate uses. In higher education in the 1990s, digital multimedia went through a painful adolescence, in part because it took so long to dispel the misbelief that merely combining images, animation, and audio would somehow result in effective instruction.Footnote16 Likewise, it will take time, experimentation, and thoughtful evaluation to develop appropriate and effective educational applications with AR and VR. The true value of these new visualization environments will not be derived from simply extending existing two-dimensional media into three- or four-dimensional virtual displays. Nevertheless, these early examples of AR and VR activities that span research practices into the curriculum interest us as signals of possibly emerging futures. As we'll see, they also help foreground important issues that we will consider further as we discuss the future scenarios we developed.

The Future: Four Scenarios for AR and VR

Having looked at the visualization technologies focal topic in the past and present, the next step in futures forecasting centers on developing a set of varied, imaginative, yet plausible future scenarios. By weaving together old and new, including forces and patterns with which we're familiar but also signals of new possible future trajectories, a typical futures analysis leads to multiple scenarios chosen because they are plausible, though not necessarily probable.Footnote17 While not fully elaborated here, multiple scenarios reveal several cross-cutting challenges. Again it is worth emphasizing that the goal is not to guess the "right" future but to understand what varied directions we might be headed in. Futurists ask us to consider a number of scenarios that can be categorized according to their level of plausibility and their degree of disruption or depth of impact. For each scenario, we ask ourselves what the impacts are on daily experiences, systems of various kinds, and even our values. Meanwhile, what signals in the present should we monitor in order to observe how or whether these scenarios are unfolding? Depending on the topic and context—for example, climate change, economic development, or political shifts—the time span chosen for scenarios development can vary. It's not uncommon to look thirty or even fifty years ahead. However, given our need for actionable forecasts for a technology topic, five to ten years seems a good fit. For a fast-moving area such as AR and VR where technological progress can be measured in dog years, shorter time frames make sense. With our UC Berkeley context in mind, therefore, we followed this approach and developed four scenarios that imagine futures in which AR and VR technologies will have generated different kinds of impact and growth levels in the year 2029.

Scenario A: Continuity, Stabilities, Damping Effect

Credit: Richard Lum. Reprinted with permission.

By 2029, we have only seen waxing and waning AR and VR activity popping up from time to time within the research and teaching domains. This seesaw effect occurs mainly in disciplines where there is always an appetite for innovative visualization techniques, mainly in research, but with some short-lived spillover into teaching and learning activities. Limited, self-supporting, departmental efforts spring up occasionally. However, the burden of sustaining and supporting technologies in isolated departmental settings, along with the headwinds of traditional stabilities (e.g., difficulties in sharing AR and VR visualization via scholarly publications) prevents short-term initiatives from taking hold. For adopters who persist, nagging ergonomic complaints—prescription eyewear fit, headset strap adjustment, motion sickness—emerge with extended use of the devices. In the end, there is not much uptake beyond a few new practices for researchers using high-end devices for visual exploration in certain disciplines. Worse still, the fleeting, grow-fast-or-die cycle of technology results locally in several cases in which instructors abruptly lost access to the elaborate set of scenes and assets they'd put in place in metaverse also-ran collaborative platforms. Enthusiasts ruefully draw parallels between the short-lived metaverse experiments and the disappointment of a previous decade when Second Life couldn't quite gain a critical mass of users, despite its potential.

Scenario B: Incremental Change, Low Disruption

The past seven years have brought steady albeit slow growth of AR and VR activity on campus, particularly in a handful of research disciplines but with subsequent crossover into teaching. AR and VR technologies are used daily by researchers to facilitate visualizations in a variety of ways, such as for chemical structures, engineering dynamics simulation, and environmental modeling in architecture.

Credit: Richard Lum. Reprinted with permission.

Now in 2029 we find ourselves responding increasingly to support calls for instructional use of these applications with small- to medium-sized classes. Challenges arise around enterprise authentication, data privacy, accessibility accommodation, and warranty clauses in vendor contracts. We are faced with a need to develop some formal policy framework and services with other stakeholder offices. For example, the campus privacy office finds itself reviewing terms of service and end-user license agreements for a half dozen different vendors whose products are under consideration for purchase. However, two of these products are already known to lack basic accessibility interfaces and assistive technology integrations. The accessibility reviews are going on in parallel. Interestingly, a recurring question is whether students who wear glasses should be asking for disability accommodations, as the issues around the proper fitting of headsets, the use of eye spacers, and the general discomfort of wearing headsets have led to at least three formal complaints. The crossover into teaching and learning, however, is steady but manageable and mainly confined to upper-division courses, graduate seminars, and special lab activities.

Scenario C: Incremental Change, High Disruption

Credit: Richard Lum. Reprinted with permission.

We have seen AR and VR activities quickly and steadily increasing across research and instructional settings in the past few years. Along with the increased social uptake of AR and VR in the general consumer market, the cumulative adoption on campus was surprisingly swift. The resulting demand on the instructional side now requires not just a refresh of policy but also the addition of new AR and VR services offerings. IT policy, 5G infrastructure, and integration with campus systems become pressing issues by 2029. Campus IT help desk staff are fielding questions every week relating to whether users should be using personal or institutional accounts, AR and VR equipment selection and discount pricing, Wi-Fi and 5G connectivity, or LTI integrations between the course management system and various social collaborative VR platforms. AR and VR are also now increasingly being taken up in human behavior research, and our local IRB reaches out every semester for help understanding technical aspects of bio-measurement such as eye tracking and heartbeat monitoring. High-profile security breaches in several social XR environments have only worsened people's willingness to explore the potential of these platforms.

Scenario D: Abrupt, Disruptive Change

Credit: Richard Lum. Reprinted with permission.

In April 2029 a virulent avian flu outbreak originating in North American poultry farms gets out of control, despite dramatic efforts to contain it. Within weeks, documented infections arise on several continents during the busy springtime travel season. The World Health Organization declares a public health emergency of international concern. North American institutions of higher education scramble to wrap up spring term as quickly as possible, as a shelter-in-place mandate likely looms ahead. For higher education, this second pandemic is shaping up to be at least another full year of remote instruction. Institutions scramble to update their emergency online teaching plans for the coming fall of 2029, even as they cancel in-person summer activities and urge students to return home if possible. Pressure builds to supplement Zoom remote instruction with some sort of VR experience. Meanwhile, technology companies seize the opportunity and start rolling out metaverse services for the higher education market (e.g., virtual campus tours for admissions purposes). As well-meaning campus officials jump on the bandwagon, institutions scramble to begin buying and distributing low-cost headsets by drop-shipping them to students and instructors at their home addresses. Hasty contracts are put in place to build bespoke, institutionally branded virtual classroom and meetings spaces, campus digital twins, and various "virtual laboratory" applications in hopes that they will prove a useful stopgap in some gateway science courses such as introductory biology and chemistry. Few if any of these use cases relate to pre-pandemic visualization practices within research, teaching, or learning activities.

From Scenarios to Strategy: Discerning Cross-Cutting Themes

The scenario summaries are intended to give a taste of the exercise's output. During the months spent developing and discussing scenarios, we soon began to step back and identify aspects of the adoption of AR and VR technologies that matter across almost all conceivable scenarios, areas we need to be ahead of regardless of which scenario is most closely reflected in the future that unfolds. Indeed, the scenario development processes can be said to deliver much value just in freeing one from getting caught up in the details of any one particular future at the risk of missing the big picture.

For us, those implementing AR and VR must, at the earliest stage, give strategic consideration to three core must-haves: health and safety, security and privacy, and accessibility. Additionally, the third and fourth scenarios raise important policy choices, and program challenges arise in deciding how to approach the planning of infrastructure, spaces, and the services to be offered in the future. In particular, academic technology and research computing units are well positioned to leverage their experience developing services around innovative technologies, services that are in turn sustainable in the cultures of higher education.

Health and Safety

Probably the most thoroughly discussed health and safety issue for XR technologies is visually induced motion sickness. While more sophisticated devices might alleviate the problem somewhat, the actual causes are complicated and not solved by simply boosting display resolution.Footnote18 Moreover, it is still the case that very few can wear a VR headset for more than an hour or two without significant fatigue and discomfort. Physical safety hazards are similarly a well-documented concern. VR headsets present numerous risks. Reported incidents are on the rise of AR device users falling or bumping into obstacles. Even just the act of putting on a headset has attendant risks. Before the pandemic, hygiene and skin allergy concerns surrounded sharing devices. Practices such as the use of disposable masks or pads, ultraviolet light baths, and specialized cleansers have emerged since the pandemic, but their efficacy has yet to be established. Finally, radio frequency radiation and emissions coming from these devices need more research as well, especially as untethered devices become prominent. There has not been enough discussion about the potential risks of having these increasingly powerful electronic devices and their high-throughput wireless transmitters strapped to our heads. Marketing claims for how 5G technologies will finally unlock the full potential of untethered AR and VR should give us all pause.

Security and Privacy

Envisioning any future in which AR and VR technologies are a regular part of the higher education landscape, we must begin asking questions right now about security and privacy concerns that need to be addressed, rather than waiting for bad actors to seize upon the value of AR and VR user data. What happens when our avatars become important to our identities and begin to carry monetary value with them (e.g., digital wallets)? What happens when we really want to know with whom we are interacting in the metaverse? What happens if we want to opt out of data collection (e.g., for spatial mapping data about our personal physical environment), let alone understand how such data gets stored and used? Some of these questions are already familiar concerns in higher education's current online instructional platforms, but the extent of potential privacy intrusion in AR and VR is difficult to overstate, given the array of cameras and sensors commonly deployed in these devices.Footnote19


As with most aspects of this new medium, the accessibility questions raised around AR and VR range from negative to positive and from obvious to surprising. The new medium presents both enormous challenges but also some potential benefits for users with certain disabilities. Most urgently, however, adopting AR and VR in educational settings raises accessibility issues even more profound than did the advent of streaming video and podcast media when those technologies appeared on the educational scene. Crucial questions remain to be answered about how to provide equivalent, alternative, or accessible experiences for users who have, for instance, motion, visual, or auditory limitations. Given the importance of motion and physical control in AR and VR, many additional questions arise about accommodating various physical restrictions and limitations that users may have. Assistive technology support and space layout are topics for which the old can potentially inform the new. Academic libraries have a strong tradition of providing access to patrons with disabilities. Assistive technology, adjustable furniture, and careful attention to paths of travel will need to be addressed carefully for any services involving AR and VR. These additional needs for accommodations around controllers represent just one of many areas of policy focus and enlightened design guidelines that need to be developed.Footnote20

Shaping Our Future: Berkeley XR Community of Practice

A final step in the futures framework methodology is to define one's aspirations, identifying the kind of future that one would like to see. At UC Berkeley, our aspiration for the future of AR and VR envisions practitioners and service providers in higher education directly shaping the evolution of these technological systems, with a focus and influence we've not seen so far. Knowing that technology innovation and consumer marketing forces will continue to be primary drivers of AR and VR broadly, higher education IT leaders will need to be creatively pragmatic in adapting the benefits of AR and VR while remaining resolutely principled in protecting nonnegotiable values core to our mission, such as health and safety, security and privacy, and accessibility. At UC Berkeley, this work has begun by our bringing together the early adopters of AR and VR into a community of practice in order that policies, programs, and strategies will be developed collaboratively, informed by a diverse set of perspectives. Comprising faculty, staff, and students, our growing community of AR and VR practitioners meets to share their experiences, demo works in progress, and discuss the latest AR and VR developments.

Community members share practical concerns about how to create and maintain AR and VR content that will be at the heart of their research and educational experiences. As mentioned earlier, we are still in the early days of content development for higher education, with AR and VR technology companies focusing on gaming, social metaverse experiences, and corporate applications. Early AR and VR innovators at many institutions, ours included, are developing their own content. This can be very challenging, given the learning curve involved and the chaotic evolution of de facto and actual standards. We have found that different academic disciplines develop their own workflows for creating 3D content, and bringing together content from different technological workflows presents many obstacles. Similarly, through our community work, we want to highlight issues of content curation so that, for example, assets developed for one VR experience can be reused later for other experiences. Currently, that requires sophisticated technical planning in addition to the familiar issues around file format conventions, versioning, and storage. Perhaps most importantly, by focusing on content, we emphasize and highlight the importance of aligning content and experiences with our higher education objectives. As with our first futures scenario, it is not difficult to envision a future scenario in which students, faculty, and staff lose interest in XR content because it is not connected to educational and/or research objectives.


We have offered an overview of challenges and opportunities that academic technology organizations will need to consider in reckoning with AR and VR technologies going forward. We have found that using a futures approach enables agency in face of an uncertain and complex landscape. In particular, the futures methodology allows us to discern the past and present patterns around a key focus on visualization. This is not to say that we choose to ignore the sundry ways in which AR and VR might benefit the curriculum. Use cases for teaching digital skills, new modes of art and performance, and new genres of experiential encounters are just some of the many emerging forms that we welcome and consider. However, by encouraging us to look first at the past and present in order to perceive key patterns, cycles, and forces still in play, our futures studies approach brings a focus on visualization practices, especially for presentation and exploration, as core categories to track. In our particular setting, we believe that visualization for presentation and exploration will be at the forefront of any significant adoption and subsequent strategic response for support services in research, teaching, and learning. Early exploratory projects show promise, but a great deal of policy development, curricular design, and evaluation work lie ahead. As reflected in our musings, the future landscape of teaching and learning in higher education looks to be growing with ever-increasing complexity. The rapidly emerging need for new, more inclusive pedagogies, new policies, and a demand for ongoing discussions about these issues will be needed at the highest levels of campus leadership.


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Owen McGrath is Director of Strategic Initiatives and Programs, Research, Teaching, & Learning at UC Berkeley.

Chris Hoffman is IT and Operational Director for the Forum for Collaborative Research in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Shawna Dark is Chief Academic Technology Officer and Assistant Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education at UC Berkeley.

© 2023 Owen McGrath, Chris Hoffman, and Shawna Dark. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.