Can Virtual Reality Turn You Into Johnny Mnemonic?

Integrating Mnemonics in VR for Super Cyberpunk Retention

Audacious … Johnny Mnemonic. Photograph: Vertigo Releasing

No. VR can not turn you into Johnny Mnemonic. Which is a relief, because in William Gibson’s story the lead character has been surgically altered to store computer data in his brain. He can’t access it. He just carries it around as a secure way of transporting it for powerful corporations. He does this at the expense of his own memories, meaning his name is ironic for him personally, since mnemonic means a device for remembering something. Thankfully, virtual reality (VR) doesn’t surgically remove part of your brain and cram data into it in a way that you can not access. That might make for a great story, but would be harmful and pointless in real life. Instead, VR can leverage known mnemonic techniques to supercharge retention and open doors for new ways of learning.

Much has been researched and written about how VR education and training naturally improves retention. VR improves focus by its very nature of immersing our sight and sound, even our sense of self, in another world. An effective VR application is instructional and entertaining, engaging us in scenarios much closer to real life than a book, video, or passionate PowerPoint presenter can accomplish. Just google “How VR improves memory”, “How VR improves education and training”, or check out my free eBook How VR Will Revolutionize Training and Education. A simulated fall will help you remember the mistake you made in ladder safety. An explosion will help you remember to double check the recommended amounts for mixing nickel hydrazine perchlorate. However, there are only so many explosions you can put in a learning experience before they start to lose their retentive edge. How do you remember the more mundane yet important parts, like the eight points of ladder planning or the required elements of a chemical hygiene plan? The answer is by augmenting the VR learning with proven mnemonic techniques and striking a balance between that and VR theatrics.

I first discovered mnemonics when I was in high school. I had always envied “the smart kids” and their ability to remember facts. In my quest to become more intelligent, believing memory held the key, I ran across The Memory Book by magician Harry Lorayne and former NBA basketball star Jerry Lucas. It was all about mnemonics, techniques used to help remember information.

Image from Thriftbooks

For a while, I was on my way to becoming a memory wizard, using techniques like the story method, the memory palace, and the phonetic number system. One of my best recollections of that time was using the story method to memorize all of the prepositions for English class. I got an A. Even to this day, forty-three years later, I can still remember some of the story about a boy facing monsters as he moved under, over, and around them. Sadly, I got distracted with being a teenager and got out of the habit of using these techniques, therefore never reaching wizard status. The techniques work but they require time, effort, and motivation.

My interest in mnemonics has recently renewed as I’ve come to realize these age old techniques could be combined with the latest in immersive technology. Could this be the “get together” on the level of peanut butter and chocolate that supercharges all types of learning or just the fanciful musings of a so-called VR expert? Naturally, I’m inclined to believe the former, as it is not only more friendly to my ego but it is self-evident that these two proven enhancers of memory retention would work well together to produce a hybrid offspring that was greater than each of its parents. Let’s dig in and see how.


Repetition, on the surface, is the most boring of the techniques. I can practically sense you yawning as you read this, but stick with me, this tried and true technique can be done in interesting ways with virtual reality and even “plain ole” computer based learning. Memory researchers credit repetition as the single most important method of learning in transferring memory from the conscious to the subconscious. We have all done this to memorize something and are therefore familiar with the idea. Why don’t we do it more often? Well, again, because it is boring and time consuming. What can be done about this?

Build It Into the Learning

Make memorization an integral part of the learning curriculum, don’t put all the work on the learner, help them out. Implement a before, during, and after strategy. Quiz the learner before presenting the material. A good question will make the learner curious and prepare the mind to record the information by being curious about the answer. During the presentation of the material provide incentives for reading or playing it more than once. After the material has been presented, quiz the student to see if they have retained the information. If not, and if critical, have them revisit the information in an engaging way that does not seem like punishment.

Provide innovative ways to revisit the material, even if it is several screens or modules prior. If they can revisit material without feeling judged, maybe even rewarded, and not lose much time, then you have a winning method for quick review. The rewards can be general or content specific. General rewards can take the form of sound, scoring, visual effects, and other various pleasing affirmations. Gambling software is a good place to study this kind of feedback. Content specific rewards can include objects in the curriculum and fun activities “unlocked” like a quick mini game using the equipment you are learning about or a secret formula in the chemistry class you are taking.

Make it Fun or Interesting

Can repetition really be fun? The answer is no if it feels like you are wasting time, but the answer can be yes if the learner feels like the effort is paying off and they are learning. The answer is also yes if the student is intrigued and engaged. For example, my company From the Future (FTF) provides workbench activities to supplement slide material in their Hololab VR Training platform.

Many of the slides in the Hololab VR Training platform have workbench activities to reinforce the written material. For example, in the safety module for the slide about inadequate surfaces, the student can operate a joystick to navigate a miniature boom lift through a trench or over some boards that break from the weight of the machine. The subsequent fall from an unsecured crash test dummy drives home the incredible consequences from the physics involved.

Image captured in FTF’s Hololab VR Training for Boom Lift Safety and Operations

Creating a unique activity for every slide can add up on the development side so other, more generic, methods can also be employed. FTF is currently pursuing several of these ideas in a continuing effort to be cost conscious. Having a background in video game development helps significantly in designing ideas for rewarding repetition. I would love to talk about them in more detail here but that will have to wait for a future date.

Space it Out

Every course, in school, online, or in VR, that I have taken, ends once the curriculum is consumed. There might be quizzes and a final test at the end, but that is it. In formal education, they have tests at the end of a semester but these are designed simply to gauge how well you remembered the material and in no way shape or form help you retain it other than pressuring you to make a good grade. The information is given, hopefully received, and then presumed remembered. In today’s technological world that is unacceptable for critical information.

There is no reason (other than time, money, ingenuity, and motivation) that learning needs to stop when the class ends. Almost everyone has a smart phone these days, or at least one that is capable of receiving text messages. What if a day, week, month, year, or several years later you received a follow up set of quizzes and lessons on your phone? The quizzes would test your knowledge and would determine what follow up content you should receive. Do too poorly, and you retake the class.

The Memory Palace

The memory palace, also known as the method of loci, is a mnemonic device that can be traced back to ancient Greece. The technique is utilized by associating information with a physical location. Locations can vary from places in your home to cities on a map. Brain scans done on “superior memorizers” that use the method of loci show activated regions of the brain linked to spatial awareness.

The Cabinets of Curiosity from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

VR is spatial by its very nature so there is a natural boost to memorization and retaining knowledge by learning in a virtual physical environment, but there is so much more that VR developers can do to leverage the method of loci.

The workbench with slide approach, mentioned earlier, that FTF employs is one step in that direction. Often the objects and scenes on the bench provide a locational cue to the information being presented on the large learning screen. How can we take this further?

In the Hololab VR Training platform, the slides that have been viewed on the learning screen are put on the workbench as cards. The student can then pick up any card to preview previous information. This helps with repetition but how is this related to the method of loci? Memory objects can be associated with each of the slide cards. These can be generic and chosen by the learner or could be curriculum specific, using objects associated with the subject matter. One glance at the memory object would help recall the associated information and could be used by the learner to commit to long term memory. The software can also allow the user to arrange the cards off to the side or on the infinity dome in a way that makes sense to them, organizing the cards by relation of subjects. The VR designer can do this ahead of time as well, with obvious informational connections. The cards can be transformed into other objects or colored shapes that when touched show the complete information. Key info can be picked up and stored on a memory bracelet that can be quickly accessed later in a different scenario for quick access or easy remembering just by being there.

Depending on the information being learned, actual models of palaces could be used where each grouping of information is learned by navigating from room to room. Later, a smaller, open top version of the palace can sit off to the side for a quick glance and recall. There are many possibilities for implementing spatial memory techniques to aid in memorization.


The purpose of this article was to get my fellow educators and VR developers to think how they might use this medium in new ways to reinforce memory and not just rely on the natural retentive aspects of VR. There are other memory techniques that I did not touch on such as the Link System, Peg Words, Person Action Object, and many more. The true power of VR as a tool in learning will be realized when we, as educators and developers, become familiar with techniques in different disciplines and areas of study such as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and even early education. For example, Multi-Sensory Learning has been used effectively to teach children how to read. The senses usually employed are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. VR is naturally multi sensory so why not take full advantage by using colors, shapes, sound, music, and haptic feedback as often as possible?

Other Links

The Science of Virtual Reality: How VR Helps with Memory Retention.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Johnny Mnemonic (film)

Using Virtual Reality to Assess and Promote Transfer of Memory Training in Older Adults With Memory Complaints: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Elaborative encoding — Wikipedia

CEO From the Future, programmer, futurist, technologist, specialist in Extended Reality (XR) and how profoundly it will affects our lives.