AR for Physics Education

The Augmented Reality Physics Experiments Toolbox

Augmented reality for virtual experiments to teach physics concepts.

The ARLab started to collaborate with Leif Segen, a teacher from John F. Kennedy High School High School in Cedar Rapids, to develop a so-called Augmented Reality Physics Experiments Toolbox: an AR application for tablet computer that allows a student to learn and experience physics concepts. Leif joined us as participant of the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. He is a physics and computer science teacher who came to transfer the latest research results into his classroom.

We believe that spatial AR can better convey physics concepts than sketches and real experiments can do since we can visualize light and adapt the application to the individual needs of students.

The AR Physics Experiment Toolbox has been designed as an application to carry out classroom experiments, we started with the physics of light, the distribution of light and reflection. Studies regarding students’ learning of the behavior of light in the presence of mirrors and lenses - summarily “geometric optics” - have identified common deficiencies in students’ understanding, both before and after instruction. Students misunderstand how light behave, where light rays project an image to, and how mirrors behave. One reason is the invisible nature of light. Students contribute from AR at this point: AR can visualize light rays.

Research Question

The research focus on the application design, the information presentation, as well as the benefits students gain when using AR. The research addresses two questions:

   • How can AR best convey virtual instruction to improve students’ learning?

   • How does AR-assisted learning affect learning outcomes in contrast with traditional methods?

The application design takes guidance from typical physics education concepts according to Goldberg and McDermott [1]. However, Goldberg and McDermott worked with sketches and real experiments. AR relies on virtual instructions to convey concepts which opens new opportunities. From a human-computer-interaction point-of-view, one is restricted due to technical and user limitations: minimalistic interfaces and quick information delivery is imperative for a successful AR application. For instance, methods to present light incorporate

   • Single light rays,

   • Multiple light rays,

   • Waves, and

   • Particles,

with and without animations. We investigate the different ways to convey the information to students and compare those alternatives and their efficiency.

Our baseline to assess the efficiency of AR is the common classroom approach: physical experiments explained by sketches in a textbook.

Using AR, the hypothesis claims that we can better convey physics concepts than is done with regular 2D ray diagrams.

Prototype Application

We developed an AR application prototype. It is designed to meet students’ needs for learning about geometric optics more deeply. Its primary features are:

   • prompting recall of prior knowledge,

   • dynamically representing 3D behavior of light, and

   • using knowledge to make predictions regarding a reflected image location.

The application is intended to be used by two to three students learning collaboratively.

The prototype application guides the user through 27 scenes. The goal is to complete the assigned tasks. A representative sample is shown below.

Traditional textbook explanation of diffuse light (upper image) vs. AR-assisted explanation of diffuse light; the light ray and the diffuse scattering are animated.


Three screenshots from our prototype application showing three steps of one task. Left: the empty scene, mid: the user is asked to us a marker to predict the location of the image that appears in the mirror. Right: the application shows the correct position (yellow teapot) and compares it with the student's best estimate.


User Study (in planning)

A user study is planned to occur with high school students at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and undergraduate students at Iowa State University.

Learners’ understanding of geometric optics will be assessed with the Goldberg/McDermott method [1]. For instance, a light reflection experiment incorporates the following tasks:

   • Point to the location of an image, given an object and mirror.

   • Predict the location of the image that the interviewer would see at a different location.

   • With a covered mirror, predict whether an image would be visible.

Assessment will be performed before and after use of the AR application for each user. Students who learn via traditional instruction methods will be similarly pre- and post-assessed.

Assessment results are coded into defined levels of correctness by interviewer. The average pre- and post-assessment correctness for each group will be contrasted to calculate a gain.

Gain between the groups will be our metric to assess the outcome. A statistically significant larger gain in the AR-assisted learning group will be considered a successful confirmation of the hypothesis.

The user study needs to be aligned with the regular physics curriculum and is scheduled for March 2016.


[1] Fred M. Goldberg and Lillian C. McDermott, Student difficulties in understanding image formation by a plane mirror, The Physics Teacher, 24, 472 (1986)

This website will provide a download  (Windows 7 / Windows 8) of the AR  Augmented Reality Physics Experiments Toolbox. Visit us at the end of this year.


Download the lessons plan:

Click to download the lessons plan

The material presented here is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. EEC-0813570 and EEC-1406296. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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The Augmented Reality Lab explores the augmented reality (AR) technology and its capabilities for engineering applications.

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