Insights EDU

The Science Behind Keeping AR Learning Safe

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Duane Dunston | Founder & CEO | Erlo, LLC

03 Jul 2020 | 3 min read

The use of augmented reality (AR) in education is an exciting prospect – breathing life into the classroom and giving students the chance to enjoy creative, interactive and engaging learning visualising abstract concepts in great detail. This is not only great for retention purposes, but also allows people to engage in immersive experiences that would be too risky, inaccessible, or costly. However, the risk is not entirely nullified, but a different problem. That is the physical safety of the user engaged in the AR experiences.

The Danger of Tunnel Vision

Billinghurst et al. (2003) found that students developed tunnel vision due to head-mounted display, which affected their field of view. Dunleavy et al. (2009) had to remind students to stay on the sidewalk due to becoming so engaged in the AR experience. Efstathiou et al. (2018) found that students needed escorting who were engaged in the AR experience while navigating a historical site. The phenomenon is called “attention capture” or “attention tunnel” and is not new (Johnston et al., 1990). 

AR learning experience - AR anatomy

It is created when stimuli cause someone to lose track of what is around what has their attention. Csikszentmihalyi’s (2014) flow theory also suggests that when we are in a state of excitement and enjoyment, we can lose track of physical sensations, time, and space (e.g. someone binge-watching a TV series and finding out 2 – 5 hours quickly passed). In an AR experience, seeing a 3D model can create a sense of excitement because of the novelty of what is observed in the AR experience.

The text overlays, navigation screen, or control of the 3D object could cause someone to forget about their physical space and cause serious bodily harm. Some AR experiences require following a 3D model or navigation overlay. 3D objects in current AR apps will appear over physical objects. These functions could, again, cause some to trip over or walk into the physical object being blocked from their view.

Considerations for Development

AR development needs to account for this phenomenon. Similarly, someone with a head-mounted display may walk into another person, a hole in the ground, or object when they turn or not see other dangers approaching.

Some suggestions to mitigate these issues are:

  1. Group work could be assigned to the AR experience so that students can assist others with potential hazards. However, this requires some logistics to ensure that all participants can engage in the learning experience.
  2. Educators can try to find larger physical spaces with as few physical obstacles, as possible.
  3. AR applications can be developed with a feature that allows creating a 3D boundary that stops the experience if they go out of ‘bounds.’ This boundary will be helpful for schools where space is limited.
  4. Occlusion would be very beneficial where the 3D object appears behind a physical object. However, it will require some education for the users, so they don’t mistake the physical object for a 3D object and lead to the same safety concerns. The 3D model could have some indicator so the user can differentiate the physical from the virtual object. AR Core has announced occlusion within their Depth API, and EasyAR has also announced the availability of occlusion.

Some researchers have suggested that schools should integrate AR experiences within the students community to emotionally engage them in learning. While these suggestions are noteworthy, there are important safety concerns that need to be addressed before such large scale curriculum changes should be implemented.


Billinghurst, M., Belcher, D., Gupta, A., & Kiyokawa, K. (2003). Communication Behaviors in Colocated Collaborative AR Interfaces. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 16(3), 395-423.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education : The

Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Springer.

Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. (2009). Affordances and Limitations of Immersive Participatory Augmented Reality Simulations for Teaching and Learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(1), 7-22.

Efstathiou, I., Kyza, E. A., & Georgiou, Y. (2018). An inquiry-based augmented reality mobile learning approach to fostering primary school students’ historical reasoning in non-formal settings. Interactive Learning Environments, 26(1), 22-41.

Johnston, W. A., Hawley, K. J., Plewe, S. H., Elliott, J. M., & DeWitt, M. J. (1990). Attention capture by novel stimuli. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 119(4), 397.

About the author:

Duane Dunston is the Founder & CEO of Erlo, LLC.

Erlo introduces people to computer technology in a way that is not as intimidating as computer programming. MxRPC (pronounced "Mixer PC") is our first application that which is a gentle introduction to computer technology using augmented reality.