Immersive Learning Experiences that Minimize Complexity and Cost

When we think about creating immersive learning experiences, most people’s minds jump immediately to clunky VR headsets, video game 3D worlds, and other cutting edge-technologies.

virtual hands in a virtual environment

I think it’s a mistake to use these modern trappings of mixed reality as a starting place, because producing these experiences requires huge upfront investments in hardware, software expertise, and development hours to produce anything like an immersive experience.

the cost of animators and content builders

While those high-tech gizmos grab headlines and dominate our mindshare (largely due to the marketing push they get from giant tech corporations), they have very poor adoption across populations of learners which creates real barriers to creating experiences that can be affordably rolled out in real-world contexts.

When they go High, We Go Low (Tech)

Instead, it’s best to think of immersive experiences starting with low-tech solutions first, and gradually building up in complexity using tech that your target audience already has in their pocket.

The fact that most learners carry a modern smartphone means you can leverage their cameras, web browsers, YouTube app, as well as common networking protocols like NFC (near field communication), QR codes, and iBeacons to add interactive elements into physical spaces.

Environments: Real > Virtual

For example, why build a virtual 3D environment (that your learners can only see through a $500+ headset) when you’re already gathered in a real 3D environment? The cost and complexity of building a virtual 3D environment dwarfs that of dressing up a real place as a haunted house, moon base, or whatever you need it to be. Instead, look to large, pleasant physical spaces you could rent or borrow, and dress them up to work with your learning experience.

Low-Tech Interactivity Using Real Places and Learners’ Smartphones

QR Codes


QR codes are those bar codes designed to work with your cell phone’s camera. You can think of a QR code as a “hyperlink for the physical world”, because it can be encoded with a variety of data types. Simply scanning the code can instantly transfer the following data to your phone:

  • website URLs
  • email addresses
  • map coordinates
  • social sharing pages
  • a contact entry (to quickly add your info to someone else’s smartphone contacts)
  • plain text messages

There are more, but already, you can see the wide variety of experiences you can potentially share via these codes.

This video illustrates how you can create QR codes for an Escape Room activity:

Caveats with QR Codes

Inconsistent Implementation requires some forethought

Even though every smartphone can potentially scan QR codes, Android and iOS usually don’t come with a pre-installed default app for scanning QR codes, so consistency is something you’ll have to plan for.

The best way to ensure your learners will be able to smoothly scan your QR codes is to recommend the exact app that works with the QR codes you generate. I like Kaywa because it offers a great free code generator, as well as free apps for iOS and Android. Recommending that learners install this app for the duration of your event/course will ensure they can successfully scan your QR codes.

Research shows a low rate of use

The QR code craze peaked in 2012-2013, but research from that time has shown that very few people have ever actually scanned one themselves, and fewer do it regularly.

It’s worth mentioning that the low rate of response to QR codes could be blamed on the way they’re used, not with the technology itself.

Sites like WTFQRCodes chronicle the myriad ways marketers have misused QR Codes in ad campaigns by failing to think through how (and WHY) a user might want to scan a code.

There certainly are a lot of places the process can break down — from not having internet access to being taken to a non-mobile-friendly site after scanning. Sometimes users are asked to scan a QR code for a questionable payoff, which makes people less likely to scan again in future.

Besides, our smartphones give us several alternative technologies for finding info about our environment. Voice assistants, search-by-camera, and simply Googling the name of a business you see on the street should take you right to that website, so do you really need a visual hyperlink?

Learn from the mistakes of others

I still hold out hope that QR codes can be used in physical learning experiences, but it takes careful, intentional design. Learning from the QR failures of others, ensure that your QR codes:

  • are printed at the right size for people to use them
  • are posted in locations where people can easily scan them
  • work as valid links to content that learners can easily engage with on their phones
  • are posted with directions and clear messaging about how and why to scan
  • provide a valuable payoff that learners will understand and engage with once they arrive at the destination.

NFC Tags

NFC at a bus kiosk

NFC Tags have many of the same uses (and caveats) as QR codes. NFC (for Near Field Communication) allows you to touch your phone to another phone or an NFC tag and instantly transfer data.

Scanning a tag can:

  • take you to a website
  • share a business card
  • share your wifi password
  • enter mobile payments (this is the technology that powers Apple Pay & Google Pay so you can swipe your phone to pay at the supermarket)
  • transfer files between devices
  • open an app on your smartphone
  • and more…

As with QR codes, Apple and Google have not agreed upon a single app for reading NFC so most people don’t know that they can read these tags, much less know how to. It’s best to recommend learners install a specific NFC Reader app that you’ve thoroughly tested ahead of time on both Android and iOS.

When implemented properly, NFC can add a “magical” quality to physical learning experiences, allowing learners’ phones to light up upon contact with a surface and grant access to the next clue in a puzzle or a coded secret message.



iBeacons are a newer technology that can sense learners’ phones when they travel within a defined physical area. They can be used to send alerts to anyone that passes through their area. For example, imagine walking up to an in-store display of wool sweaters, and your phone buzzes to offer you a 25% discount for buying that sweater today.

These can be used in a physical game space to let learners know they’re on the right (or wrong) path, or to deliver a special clue when users reach a specific area.

Games in the Real World

Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts are great because they can be adapted to a physical environment that you control (like a school or convention center), or can even be played out in public where learners find objectives that are likely to be present. Photo scavenger hunts can leverage the smartphones users carry to provide interactivity and instant feedback.

Escape Room

These are well-known on our team, and we should document how we produced them and what the outcomes were!

Here is a step-by-step guide to developing an Escape Room.

Obstacle Course

Able-bodied learners can navigate a series of physical challenges that can be structured to promote learning.

This is a DIY obstacle course inspired by American Ninja Warrior. It shows how physical environments can be transformed into obstacle courses with a minimum of expense or expertise.

Laser Tag / Airsoft / Paintball

These established activities often require specific equipment and environments (both of which can be rented). Additionally, Airsoft and Paintball use real projectiles that could cause injury. Within the shoot-em-up genre of activity here, there are mini-games like “capture the flag”, “bunker”, and “VIP transport” which reproduce real scenarios in warfare, but which may be adapted for specific learning objectives.


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