Augmented reality (AR) blends reality with a computer-generated layer to make user experiences more meaningful through engaging interactions. A good example is how you can interact with those pesky Pokémon Go creatures on your phone.

Along with virtual reality (VR), this new technology is already being adopted by various industries: One in three manufacturing companies will adopt combined AR and VR technologies by 2018. As a frequent speaker at learning conferences, I’ve seen more and more interest recently from L&D to use AR in learning. This blog post approaches AR not from the pure technology perspective (more on history and comparison with VR here), but from a design thinking perspective by attempting to answer the following question: What does “make the user experience more meaningful” mean in learning applications for AR?

Change by Design 

In his insightful book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tim Brown reveals one of the most whimsical forces shaping our world of problem solving today: the power of design thinking. In L&D, we often face constraints, frequently competing ones. Tim Brown argues that the willing, and even enthusiastic, acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking.

While this post is not about the ins and outs of design thinking, it borrows the concept of looking at a business problem through design thinking within the framework of three overlapping constraints: feasibility, viability, and desirability.

As Tim Brown explains in his book, they invite their clients to see the behind the curtain of “messy chaos” as they’re going through the design thinking process. He’s comparing this to opening the backstage for an avid theater-goer to see all the mishaps, on-the-fly fixes, and hassles going on.

That’s what I am going to do now. I’m opening the curtain to reveal the design process of my session at the ATD 2017 International Conference & Exposition in Atlanta. The session will use AR technology to provide a more meaningful and engaging experience to participants.

Escape the WORL&D! 

The session, Escape the WORL&D!, is an innogizer. An innogizer is a session that combines new, innovative learning experiences with a shot of hands-on energy at the end of the day. The experience is inspired by the popular escape room games, in which a group of people must find their way out from a locked room by solving puzzles together. A successful escape is a testament of sharing and collaboration, a group effort to leave egos and silos behind.

That is the overall business goal of the session: experiencing the power of sharing and collaboration. I also want to motivate participants to build similar events when they return to work. Let’s explore the three design constraints related to the Escape the WORL&D innogizer!

Constraint: Desirability 

Will participants want to do this? Will this fill a need? Will this solution appeal to participants?

The goal is for participants to be able to design similar experiences at work. To do that, I believe they need to experience it first. I started my research with Adam Clare’s book, Escape the Game: How to Make Puzzle and Escape Rooms, to understand the mechanics of building a real-life experience. The real escape room games are built on multitudes of game mechanics, but there’s an underlying framework that propels emotions into actions and glues all pieces together: storytelling.


For instance, Escape the WorL&D borrows some of its storytelling framework from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Much like Alice, participants will explore a whimsical world. They must collaborate with others and solve brain puzzles along their journey from pawn to Queen.   

Constraint: Feasibility 

Is the technology needed to power this design solution available? How long will this take to build?

Participants will work in teams of 10-12. Each table will have its own set of hunts, puzzles, clues, and maps. To re-create the sense of progression and the 3-D space of a real escape room, we’re going to use an app, called ClueKeeper. ClueKeeper is an awesome app allowing you to create clue-finding hunts, either based on GPS location (outdoor) or entering puzzle solutions (indoor). ClueKeeper serves as the glue, driving the story forward and allowing multiple players to solve different hunts at the same time. Since everyone can participate around the table simultaneously, the team can decide how to collaborate.

The other great contribution of ClueKeeper is the integration with an augmented reality app, called Zappar. Using a mobile phone or tablet, the Zappar app allows you to “zap” real objects through the built-in camera. Once the app recognizes an object, it displays a computer-generated layer in real time. (Take a look at how a pinball machine in a museum is brought to life by an AR-driven hunt built with ClueKeeper and Zappar.) The augmented reality layer may include videos, buttons, text, and even 3-D objects. For the session, you don’t need to download the Zappar app because ClueKeeper has integrated “zapping” functionality. I did have to use Zappar to design the augmented experience first, however. In short, the technology is ready for the design solution.

As for how long it takes to design and build a session, the answer depends on your goals. Both apps are intuitive and user-friendly. The most time-consuming part of the design is coming up with the story and engaging puzzle hunts, not the actual building. Zappar offers three design approaches to augmented reality: widgets, designer, and studio. Widgets offer ready-made solutions with simple drag-and-drops. Designer lets you create your own experience and multiple scenes, and provides more flexibility. And if you’re into coding, 3-D, and hardcore augmentation, there’s studio.

Constraint: Viability 

Will the design solution align with the business goals? And this final question brings us back to our main topic: how does AR make the user experience more meaningful?

When technology is used for the sake of technology, user experience often suffers. The escape room challenges offer an engaging environment where everything you touch and interact with, including live actors, is part of the adventure. One of the challenges I faced in a conference setting was how to elevate paper-based puzzle solving around a table to the same engagement level. That’s exactly what AR brings to the table. AR enhances reality by adding a new dimension to the experience. For example, a paper map can now come alive with pictures, sounds, and buttons. Sorting a timeline now can include a multimedia experience, providing additional clues. A sketch of an equipment now can be seen working in a 3-D environment. Someone’s name or business card can display a video clip introduction. Options are limitless. For this session, we’ll keep AR simple enough—but with a twist.

I will publish a blog post after the conference with step-by-step instructions for designing your own experience like this, relatively inexpensive. As for the twist? You’ll have to come to ATD 2017 and Escape the WORL&D to find out!