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Learning Through VR: Meaningful Interactions

Right now, developers and creators are trying out all sorts of new things when it comes to content in VR. In addition to exploring novel controls, immersive stories, and how to utilize a truly 3D space, design in VR brings up interesting questions around finding meaningful ways to interact with objects and story elements. The idea of meaningful interaction with objects becomes increasingly important when one considers designing virtual experiences with the goal of enhancing learning.

Let’s consider an average school day. Generally speaking, students have 7 hours of time in school, broken into 45 minute classes, and in spaces shared along with upwards of 29 other students and a often a single teacher. It’s hectic, and time is already an issue for most teachers. Now add in VR. Most teachers have to share VR equipment with multiple students and fit it into an already packed schedule. Our data from students shows that one of the top things that breaks immersion while in VR is feeling pressured from time. Whether it is because they only get two minutes to be in an experience, or that they know they have to hurry up so another student can use it, they feel pressured to get as much out of it as quickly as possible. So, the design of an experience needs to maximize student time and energy through minimizing meaningless interaction.

For instance, one of the teachers we support wanted to use a museum experience so students could closely examine some works of art. In an effort to create realism, the experience included a security checkpoint upon entry. However, this was a confusing addition for the novice users of VR, and wound up taking so much time that the class was unable to see a single museum exhibit before the bell rang. While the checkpoint may have offered a more authentic museum experience, one questions whether this was necessary or just detracted from the meaningful parts of the content that involved looking at and evaluating art.

When it comes to VR, students want to explore the boundaries of the content, and when working in creative settings, like Tilt Brush, it makes sense to have lots of ways to explore and interact as almost all of it creates value in some way. However, in a narrative where the designer is trying to convey important points of a story, like a historical event, extraneous interactions can prove detrimental to the overall experience when time is a factor. For instance, once an average seventh grader realizes they can pick up and throw every object in a room, they will likely stop paying attention to the audio that moves the story forward, and start hurling toasters and chairs.

Of course, throwing things around is fun, but when considering meaningful interaction it is important that it makes sense in the context of the narrative. For example, in The Price of Freedom, the player is tasked with tearing apart a room to look for clues. In this case, throwing things around reveals important information and advancing the story. Other rooms, where the purpose is not exploration, have much more limited interactions that are constrained to relevant and meaningful objects. This keeps the experience both efficient and engaging, while still allowing some degrees of freedom and the ability to feel like you are there.

As more people design content for a variety of purposes, we will continue to discover what meaningful interactions can be. When designing content for education it is very important to keep in mind the audience, their constraints, and what the learning objective might be. Extraneous interactions, while fun, can potentially limit student’s ability to become immersed and reduce learning outcomes.

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foundry10 is an education research organization with a philanthropic focus on expanding ideas about learning and creating direct value for youth.