The classroom is changing at a rapid pace. Most schools are already using tablets in their curriculum and some schools are pioneering with the use of Virtual Reality. Anyone who has ever experienced some form of VR can understand that it can be an impressive experience, but when and how should you use Virtual Reality in education? What are the downsides and aspects to take into consideration? In this article we share our experience and lessons learned while creating our educational VR games. What works and what doesn’t.
We have developed several VR games for education and healthcare. In this article we will mostly discuss the VR implementation of education in ‘Reducept’, a Virtual Reality training for managing chronic pain. In the game, players shrink to the size of a blood cell and explore different parts of the body to learn about how their body and pain works. By teaching patients about how pain works in their body and how they can influence the experience of pain, their chronic pain reduces and they learn strategies to manage their pain outside of the game. The educational part in this game is a direct translation of the therapy to a Virtual Reality environment.
The advantages of Virtual Reality in education
Based on a number of scientific papers and studies, we can conclude that using Virtual Reality has a few advantages:
- Higher engagement and immersion: Players can be transported instantly to another location that might otherwise be inaccessible. They can see the environment as if they were really there. The immersion is strengthened because of the more direct translation of the player movements to the virtual world by using the head mounted display instead of a controller peripheral. Virtual Reality headsets also close off the wearer from other visual and often auditory stimuli from the real world. This level of immersion is so strong that it is even used to reduce acute pain.
- Possibility to visualize things we can’t normally see: As soon as we want to show things that are not visible to the naked eye, for example something that is really small or something that is inside a living body, we need other tools and instruments to measure and visualize the things we want to explain. Virtual Reality gives us the freedom to visualize cells to a molecular level as if we were really there. This also extends to for example historical events and inaccessible places. This study discusses the effectiveness of using a VR environment for information transfer compared to a lecture.
- Positive emotions: Studies have shown that students who use Virtual Reality to learn, experience more positive emotions. This leads to an improved learning experience when compared to traditional and video learning methods. The fact that interactive and Virtual Reality experiences are more exciting than passive experiences is no surprise to us game developers of course, but it is nice to know that there is scientific backing as well.
There have been a lot of studies on using Virtual Reality in education. The studies mentioned above are only a small selection. If you are interested, a simple google search turns up a lot more results.
Challenges when using Virtual Reality for education
While these are certainly convincing arguments to use Virtual Reality for the purpose of education and in our case pain education and pain relief, the use of VR also has some downsides that we had to learn the hard way during development:
- Motion sickness: not a new or uncommon problem, but even more relevant for the target audience of educational Virtual Reality games. Since the game is played a lot by people who have no previous experience with Virtual Reality and have no interest in games, they are more inclined to quit as soon as they experience discomfort.
- Distraction from the educational material: Virtual Reality can be beautiful and overwhelming. There is a lot to see, hear and experience. Unfortunately this can also cause a distraction from the information that needs to be learned.
- Translation of the visualization: When visualizing things that you can’t see with the naked eye, you need to do an interpretation, translation or abstraction of what you want to explain. Some people immediately accept this visualization, but some people reject the image, making it more difficult to explain the underlying concept.
For motion sickness there are already a lot of great solutions found by other developers and described in other articles. Here are our main considerations to reduce discomfort and motion sickness:
- Never move, rotate or tilt the camera. The player should always have full control over camera movement and rotation. Any discrepancy between the players movement and the view of the game can cause discomfort.
- Always have a visual reference point. Players are traveling in a ‘pod’, a simple vehicle with a chair and a cockpit. When the pod moves, the player avatar sits still in a chair. This prevents disorientation caused by automatic movement.
- Move slowly. Fast movement in the game can cause a discrepancy between what the player expects to feel with high speed or sharp turns and what the player actually feels in real life.
- Only move forward. When turning the pod too much, you have to rotate the camera as well or the player will be looking at the back of his chair after some time. Rotating the camera without player consent is something we want to prevent.
Especially the last decision posed some design challenges. But we got used to working around the only move forward restriction quickly. In the end, the overall experience was way more comfortable.
Especially the first time someone experiences Virtual Reality, people can completely lose themselves in the environment and a constant ‘wow-effect’. Although this is a very nice and sometimes funny thing to watch, it is also a great distraction from the educational content. Imagine being in space for the first time, looking down on earth and someone is trying to explain Newton’s law of universal gravitation to you. Nobody is paying attention when gazing upon such beauty. So how do you make sure you still get all the information across?
- Repetition: A reliable and tested method. Just repeat the important parts of the educational material over and over until it sticks. Not the most elegant way, but it is effective.
- Timing and portion control: Create moments where the player can ‘Aaah’ and ‘Wooow’, but don’t try to get important information across during these moments. This way you can use the strength of VR to amaze and immerse players. An example in Reducept is when the player first enters the body through a wall of cells. Like entering a new game world, the player passes through a small gate in the wall of cells and a wonderful visualization of the inside of the human body emerges. Only a long while after this beautiful display, a voice over starts explaining the educational material.
- Guiding attention: The danger of being able to look in every direction is that you can miss important visual explanations. Use in world objects to guide the players attention to where you want them to focus.
- Switch between active and passive: Just like when you are following a lecture, if you are only listening, no matter how good your concentration is, at some point you might lose interest, miss things or drift off. To prevent this, put the player in ‘active mode’ every now and then. Give them something to do. The power of Virtual Reality and games is that they are an interactive experience.
Translation of the visualization
When we were trying to explain ‘pain stimuli’, signals that travel over nerve tracts to the brain and signal to the brain that there is pain, we realised that everyone has a different idea on how these stimuli would look like. We didn’t expect this to be really important for being able to understand pain and how to cope with it, but it still seemed like something important to visualize. As soon as we tried to translate these pain stimuli to little creatures, we received a lot of feedback on what they should or should not look like.
For some players, the pain stimuli were the bad guys, because they were causing pain. According to others they were just signals, doing their job and usually helping the human body to protect it from harm. No matter which visualization we chose, there were always players who felt less engaged because of how the pain stimuli looked like. This also caused distraction from the important parts of the education.
In the end we chose a very neutral and abstract visualization of the pain stimuli. Although we had to pass on the chance to create an interesting character and story element, the decision worked out well for the effectiveness of the game and the transfer of information.
All in all using Virtual Reality, like all technological advancements, creates opportunities but also poses challenges. By understanding how Virtual Reality works, what its limitations are and what the effects are on players, we can create amazing new learning experiences. Maybe our next project should be to create a Virtual Reality game that teaches how Virtual Reality works!