Mark Christian’s job title is rather unique for his industry – global director of immersive learning – but when I met him at Pearson’s central London office, he seemed somewhat bewildered as to why. “I’ve actually challenged my competitors to show me where my peer is in their companies, but I don’t see them yet,” he tells me.
Immersive technologies are set to play a key role in modernising our education, allowing legacy systems to finally move away from models that date back to the 1800s into something more suited for the digital age.
Given the considerable hype that has been building up around virtual and augmented reality, you might expect more publishers to have dedicated resources to these technologies. The reality is that much of what we’ve seen so far has been limited to variations of AR books. While that type of content does fall under Christian’s remit, he is rather cautious about their long-term future.
“As this technology becomes more ubiquitous, a little pop-up thing in a text book is going to be very uninteresting to a student in five years time,” he says. “They might increase engagement and profits by a measure, but I think we need to focus on solving real problems in education, and to do that you need to look ahead.”
Japhet Asher, Digital Director at Carlton Books, agrees that publishing is still a relatively conservative business, but warns against dismissing AR books as mere gimmicks. His company has sold close to four million such books in over 30 countries, and he argues that as stories continue to evolve, consumers will always want to engage with them. “If used well it’s a way to tell new stories and deliver fresh experiences. We’ll keep reinventing the book – we’re not looking to replace it. While much of the current focus with AR is on Apple’s ARKit and its triggerless AR, we are very keen to explore deeper with AR triggered by the page. We think this allows us to deliver the best of digital, while preserving what’s brilliant about the oldest content delivery system of all.”
Yet Christian compares the current moment in immersive technology to where the mobile market was ten years ago. “How many companies (and I include Pearson in that) just missed that? They would look at their phones and wonder ‘who would want their textbook in one of these? Who’s going to read the news on this?’ And a lot of companies are still playing catch-up retro-fitting their platforms around that, still wrapping their heads around designing for mobile. Are you kidding me? That ship has sailed! If you are looking at the future, it’s right here. A HoloLens is staring you in the eye.”
So it makes strategic sense that Pearson has partnered with Microsoft to develop content for the HoloLens, and last month at Bett the company announced that it would be expanding this to provide school modules in its Windows Mixed Reality headsets later this year. The first five applications – in the form of licenced bundles - are already being sold to schools all over the world for the 2018-19 back to school season.
One of the Pearson applications I demoed was called Holopatient. This is a training tool for nursing students which allows them to interact with holographic patients and experience common medical scenarios they might not otherwise be exposed to. “Lots of people go into anaphylactic shock,” explains Christian, but would a student nurse on a ward get to see a patient going into anaphylactic shock? Not necessarily.
"These applications enable collaborative, teacher-led experiences where we network the HoloLens's together, so students see the same thing in the same place, and teachers can create content and lead their class through it in the way that makes the most sense."
The idea, says Christian, is to support schools, learners and teachers in doing things in cheaper, better, and more scalable way. Buying a few HoloLens devices - even at $3000 apiece – becomes good value when compared to traditional actor-led setups.
“Although there is no reason why this couldn’t sit alongside any of our products - or any number of our competitor’s products for that matter - this is not not e-learning, it’s not courseware. This is a piece of SIM software,” he explains.
Which is not to say Pearson are not doing e-learning too; the company has rolled out one of the largest repositories of interactive 360 educational video, with over 70 experiences so far. “This is where it sits within a Pearson product. It’s courseware that you can interact with either on a PC, or stick it on a Google cardboard and in there you’d have hotspots where you can find out more about certain elements, or control where you go within the experience. To be able to take a history student and say we’re going to put you in the middle of the battle of Gettysburg, that’s powerful. It gives you a distinct advantage over a content provider offering more traditional multimedia content such as animations or video.”
Christian is in fact betting on this 360 content to yield significant ROI within a relatively short time. Although he wouldn’t share exact figures, he says Pearson’s market research has been hugely encouraging in that regard: “I think people are going to be amazed by the results. It’s going to be huge.
"We’re a publisher, and so traditionally what do publishers do? They take other people’s IP, publish and distribute it widely. I think in the digital era many publishers have forgotten that. We can be a platform, be a route to market, be a salesforce. What we’re doing with our portfolio is a mix of all that - so we’re partnering with the right companies and bringing them in, but we’re building our own stuff where it makes sense too.”
There is some indication that other publishers are starting to take notice of this huge potential as well. One example is Axel Springer Digital Ventures recently announcing that they would be investing an undisclosed amount in Magic Leap. The secretive Florida-based mixed reality company – which has so far raised nearly $2 billion from Google, Alibaba, Warner Bros, Qualcomm and others – has released very few details about its Magic Leap One device, which is expected to ship to developers at some point in 2018.
“Axel Springer will, with investments in companies like Magic Leap, actively participate in innovative technologies,” the press statement read. Yet people like Christian are somewhat sceptical of the buy-in approach: “ Until you start doing stuff and building and bringing it to market, you’re not in the game,” he says, adding that although it’s early days for the technology, it is the ones that get into it early who will benefit the most. “By the time the content becomes mainstream, that ship will have sailed and the publishers who haven’t done that, they’ll notice it. And it’s all going to happen very quickly.”
This disrupt-or-be-disrupted scenario is something that I experienced back 2013 when working for Mendeley. The London start-up was acquired by the world’s largest scientific publisher, Elsevier, who were keen to incorporate the company’s innovative product and ethos into its own strategy. Mendeley’s Co-founder Jan Reichert, who eventually left the company to start a new venture - Kopernio, an AI-powered platform enabling researchers to access scholarly articles more efficiently – says there is an on-going trend in academic and scientific publishing to invest in technologies such as AI and machine learning. It makes sense that immersive technologies will eventually follow a similar path.
“Within a couple of years you’ll probably start seeing deals made for around the 100 million mark, and publishers will probably be the natural purchasers for that,” adds Christian. “I think publishers will play a really important role here if they want to, and the ones that don’t will be really disappointed.”