While the use of virtual reality (VR) for gaming and entertainment continues to grow, the technology also shows promise for changing the landscape of industries such as medicine, education and workforce training.

University of Maryland researchers conducted one of the first in-depth analyses of the educational use of VR and found that people remember information better if it is presented to them in a virtual environment. In their study, the reseachers tested whether people learn better through virtual, immersive environments, as opposed to more traditional platforms like a two-dimensional desktop computer or handheld tablet.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” says Amitabh Varshney, professor of computer science and dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at UMD. Varshney leads several major research efforts on the UMD campus involving virtual and augmented reality (AR), including close collaboration with health care professionals interested in developing AR-based diagnostic tools for emergency medicine and VR training for surgical residents.

For the study, the UMD team used the concept of a “memory palace,” where people recall an object or item by placing it in an imaginary physical location like a building or town. This method—researchers refer to it as spatial mnemonic encoding—has been used since classical times, taking advantage of the human brain’s ability to spatially organize thoughts and memories. “Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” says Eric Krokos, a doctoral student in computer science and lead author on the paper. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”

Celebrity faces

UMD researchers recruited 40 volunteers for the study—mostly UMD students unfamiliar with virtual reality. The researchers split the participants into two groups: one viewed information first via a VR head-mounted display and then on a desktop; the other did the opposite. Both groups received printouts of well-known celebrity faces and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting. Similarly, users viewed images at varying heights on nearby structures in the medieval town setting. Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The research participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed.

The key, say the researchers, was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and its relation to surrounding structures and faces—and also the location of the image relative to the user’s own body. “By visually navigating the scene, users could determine that ‘Hillary Clinton is in the top left window and it looks like she is about 20 yards from where I am sitting,’” says Krokos. The results showed an 8.8 percent improvement overall in recall accuracy using the VR headsets, a statistically significant number according to the research team.

In post-study questionnaires, all 40 participants said that they were completely comfortable—and adept—in navigating a desktop computer to access information, yet all but two said they preferred the immersive VR environment as a potential learning platform. The questionnaire also found that only two people said they felt “uncomfortable” using VR.

Many of the participants said the immersive “presence” while using VR allowed them to focus better. This was reflected in the research results: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over the desktop display.

Source: University of Maryland