One Magic Leap For Mankind: Is this visual platform the magic bullet to remote learning?

On: October 21, 2020
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About Paul Bugeja

Picture by Magic Leap

A solution to remote learning problems
Remote learning and its association with digital computing technology offers many promises to the education sector. The flexibility of time and space holds great potential in online learning. Students do not need to be physically in the room with the teacher, nor do they need to be together on time depending on the method used (Savoy, 2001). Given the obvious benefits of remote education, there are issues that need to be addressed, such as the quality of the schooling and misuse of technology (Valentine, 2002).

Distance learning technologies like Magic Leap 1 have the potential to assist in solving these problems. Desmond Keegan (1995) puts it best when he says that “the challenge is to design cost-effective and educationally-effective systems for use in the new millennium of the new technologies that permit for the first time in history (electronic) teaching of students face-to-face at a distance”. Magic Leap 1 was based on the idea that computing and technology should concentrate around the users, their needs, and their humanity and experiences. That is, people have to come first; technology should serve people. Computers must be consistent with human experience and respect human physiology (Abovitz, 2018).

What is Magic Leap 1 and how does it work?
Magic Leap 1 is a wearable head-mounted AR system that transmits an immersive, holographic 3D concept into a real-world environment. The three-part headset system features a Lightwear, Lightpack, and hand-held Controller, called “a spatial computer” by its creators. It allows the user local tracking with freedom of movement, without the need to install sensors (MIT, 2018).

The inventors focused on“making a Digital Lightfield signal to work with the human eye-brain system. We use the visual cortex as our display. The Lightwear and Lightpack’s sensing and compute provide the platform of the future for developing environment understanding, context awareness and human-centered AI”. Instead of displaying an image onto a screen, Magic Leap 1 projects an image directly into the user’s eyes. Virtual light blends in with the normal light entering the eyeball (Abovitz, 2018). The Light is invisibly directed into the user’s eyes through six small lenses from the edge to create a 3D illusion. The Magic Leap creators call this technology a “Lightfield”. The computer detects where the user looks and holds this field steady as he or she rotates around the simulated object. In a way, items “stick” to the physical world. Magic Leap 1 generates a volumetric view, using both visual and sound fields, in effect a location where the user communicates with physical and virtual objects (Rowe, 2018).

Online education in a new hybrid world
Spatial computing has shown to increase engagement, attention, and productivity for students and teachers. It was found that 88% of students prefer the extended real-world experience over traditional schooling (Magic Leap, 2020). The ability to use 3D graphically rendered content to interact and illustrate artefacts for educational purposes is limitless. With a single 3D render, it is possible to offer training sessions from anywhere in the world and educate students in an interactive and innovative way. Students and teachers can work remotely with multi-user co-presence and real-time file sharing.

Magic Leap invests in the potential of digital technologies to change the way students and teachers discover and interact with content. The company partners with top-notch universities and educational institutions to integrate spatial computing into higher education systems. For instance, the company has teamed up with the Smithsonian Institution to bring the famous Buddha into spatial computing. This application (“app”) allows numerous students and teachers to view 3D models of historical objects from anywhere in the world (Magic Leap, 2020). 

Picture by Magic Leap

Wearables are natural extensions to other intelligent technologies that are now being used by users every day. However, there is still a big (sustainable) impact to be made within manufacturing (Fretty, 2019). Facebook and companies including Snapchat and Apple are working on their own range of AR glasses. Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Facebook’s Reality Labs, warned that consumer-ready AR hardware is not coming anytime soon.

Visual computing is very challenging and it will take many more years until the advanced type of Magic Leap 1 device will be found. The company needs to build a bridge between its devices and mobile AR. Anything much more complicated than using a smartphone or tablet can be problematic (Roettgers, 2020). For Magic Leap, this may be a concern, “and while garnering attention is part of the battle, staying power is the ultimate goal” (Fretty, 2019).

The pedagogical shift from classrooms to chatrooms, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, has changed education—for better and worse. The move toward virtuality has opened many new doors, yet closed some old ones. Despite the many pros, the technologisation of education also has cons; structural and social glitches that have yet to be ironed out.

Spatial conundrums
Firstly, the move from 3D to 2D environments has brought obvious spatial limitations; ones which have had physical, psychological, and pedagogical consequences. “Screen real estate” (Faraj and Azad, 2012) imposes physical restrictions on teachers and learners alike. In her Forbes article, “Your Body Language on a Videoconference”, leadership strategist Carol Kinsey Goman speaks of one prominent CEO who struggled to get to grips with the logistics of videoconferencing. “Then, because the camera was much too close to him, when he occasionally glanced up, his eye movements looked exaggerated (making him seem agitated) and his hands kept flying in and out of frame as he gestured” (Goman, 2014).

Another difficulty with e-meeting, which Goman underlines, is the maintenance of eye-contact. “If the camera is above the screen, you’ll always appear to be looking down. And a lack of eye contact reduces trust and viewer satisfaction with the interaction” (Goman, 2014). Yet these difficulties even presuppose both parties are looking at one another. As researcher Subhashni Appana has noted: “The ability to toggle between open programs means that one could have a study program open yet be playing a computer game, viewing other websites, listening to MP3 music, and so forth” (Appana, 2008). Yet, even in full-screen, the two-dimensionality screen-space poses other hurdles. While in a traditional lecture, students can simultaneously observe and listen to an instructor, and watch PowerPoint slides or transparencies, such levels of media synchronisation are difficult to replicate in online classrooms (Zhang et al., 2004).

Social dilemmas
Concurrently, the structural limitations of 2D learning have had chronic social implications. According to Dr. Thomas Lewis, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, the reduction of the nonverbal elements of sociality can severely hamper our potential to make and build relationships over distance (Goman, 2014). It is called “distance learning” for a reason and, if long-distance relationships between couples and colleagues tend to suffer from a lack of face-to-face communication, then it stands to reason that pedagogical relationships would suffer also. 

In their paper “Neural Synchronization during Face-to-Face Communication”, Jing Jiang and colleagues have written about how “multimodal sensory information integration and turn-taking behavior contribute to the neural synchronization between partners”, and such neural synchronisation lies at the core of successful information-retention and social interaction (Jiang et al., 2012). In e-learning, due to the dimensional limitations of screens and the audio-visual lags common to servers, the efficacy of nonverbal communication and turn-taking behaviours is greatly reduced. This limited interpersonal feedback, coupled with the intrinsically dialogic nature of screen-to-screen learning, has meant that “communicative misunderstandings are common for all members and this could be exacerbated for the member with limited language skills” (Manner, 2004). Indeed, later in her paper, Appana highlights this kind of negative feedback-loop that can occur in virtual learning environments: “Online education can appear to be an impersonal exercise, which leads students to feel ‘eSolated’ from instructional staff and classmates. Online interactions lack the nonverbal cues that are a component of face-to-face contact, and this may reduce the extent of the communication that occurs” (Appana, 2008).

2D Zooms versus 3D rooms 
The integration of any emergent technology, particularly one forced to scale-up as quickly as e-learning, is bound to face the kind of immediate issues mentioned above. Yet, not all problems are immediate. Future problems, whether on the horizon or merely hypothetical, must also be factored into the equation. There is much more to education than the effective transmission of information. A high percentage of successful relationships begin during university (Wang, 2015), as do successful business partnerships—many reputable scholars have cited “networking” as one the primary affordances a university can offer (Casciaro et al, 2016). Who knows how e-learning will affect the students of today later in life, but for now, the best way forward for education is to simulate the most life-like learning environment as possible; not only to minimise future risk, but to maximise present enjoyment. As researchers have shown, if given the option between 2D and 3D, students tend to jump at the latter.

A platform for remote teaching and learning
Magic Leap 1 can be described as a platform through its creation of Rochet and Tirole’s (2003) “two-sided market”. It achieves this by providing developers with software development kits for a number of engines, such as the popular Unity, and application programming interfaces to create “experiences”; that is, apps. This market is similar to the one created by the iOS and iPhone platform, which connects end-users with app developers; however, unlike Apple’s behemoth soft-and-hardware pairing, the success of Magic Leap 1 remains to be seen. Although it operates on the familiar infrastructure of the Internet, it is a new platform that brings with it new standards, protocols, and ways of interacting with its interface. This learning curve is no easy hurdle to overcome, with Star and Bowker (2006) going as far to claim: “It is easy enough to develop a potentially revolutionary technology; it is extremely hard to implement it”.

This implementation, and the success of the platform itself, is dependent on the indirect network effects created by the interdependent dynamic between the apps and their users. On this concept, Poell et al. (2019) note: “Ultimately, the collective activities of both end-users and complementors, and the response of platform operators to these activities, determine a platform’s continued growth or its demise.” In this recursive relationship, Magic Leap 1 needs to simultaneously attract new developers and users, all the while educating both categories on how to make the most of the tools that the apps on its platform afford.

Affording teaching and learning in online environments
These tools take on many forms, such as photorealistic avatars, scribble tools, voice-to-text annotation, 3D holographs, spatial sound, haptic feedback, intuitive interaction, and dynamic data. What these varied features all have in common is the encouragement of actions that replicate real-life interactivity and face-to-face collaboration, despite users being online and not in the same room or, perhaps, even in the same continent. As previously discussed, however, there is a learning curve to contend with when dealing with any nascent technology. The effectiveness and proliferation of these tools will likely depend on how intuitively users understand their design. This intuition can be related to Davis and Chouinard’s (2017) model of perception, which they refer to as “what a subject knows about the artifact” and a “subjects’ awareness of the function”.

This notion of perception is expanded upon by Bucher and Helmond (2018) through their idea of technological affordances being hidden, where they state that “affordances must be inferred from other evidence, possibly through experimentation and other actions that make affordances visible”. This experimentation will likely be crucial to the adoption of the platform, where users and developers alike invent new use cases and solutions, as well as shaping new ways of interacting with the technology and each other. Ultimately, the goal of these low-level affordances is the high-level affordance of being able to safely meet, interact, socialise, and learn in ways that were previously not possible. 

Visualisation without reduction
This high-level affordance can be viewed as a type of “direct visualisation” through the transposition of the physical to the digital, ideally with little or no reduction. These visualisations are described by Manovich (2011) as “not the result of the remapping of the data into some new representation format – they are the original data objects selected from the complete data set”. If this format is taken to its extreme conclusion, then tools could be built that map the full range of data of our world, including light, sound, movement, and space, onto a simulated cyberworld of infinite potential. This notion is alluded to in Magic Leap 1’s tagline of “REALITY IS JUST BEGINNING”, highlighting the platform’s aim of seamlessly digitising real-world data.

Despite this ambitious vision, the limiting factor of remote collaboration technologies so far has been… technology, including computer memory and storage, graphic and sound quality, and down-and-upload speed. These limitations are now being overcome with new waves of innovations and interfaces, with Manovich (2011) claiming: “The development of computers and the progress in their media capacities and programming environments now makes possible a new method for visualisation”. Is the mapping of simulated objects onto our reality the next phase of this new method of visualisation, or is the simulation of media and their parts another form of reduction because they are not the actual objects, but rather virtual representations that merely imitate life?


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