The Effect of interactivity on learning physical actions in virtual reality

Bailenson, J.N., Patel, K., Nielsen, A., Bajcsy, R., Jung, S., & Kurillo, G. (2008). The Effect of interactivity on learning physical actions in virtual reality. Media Psychology, 11, 354–376.


Virtual reality (VR) offers new possibilities for learning, specifically for training individuals to perform physical movements such as physical therapy and exercise. The current article examines two aspects of VR that uniquely contribute to media interactivity: the ability to capture and review physical behavior and the ability to see one’s avatar rendered in real time from third person points of view. In two studies, we utilized a state-of-the-art, image-based tele-immersive system, capable of tracking and rendering many degrees of freedom of human motion in real time. In Experiment 1, participants learned better in VR than in a video learning condition according to self-report measures, and the cause of the advantage was seeing one’s avatar stereoscopically in the third person. In Experiment 2, we added a virtual mirror in the learning environment to further leverage the ability to see oneself from novel angles in real time. Participants learned better in VR than in video according to objective performance measures. Implications for learning via interactive digital media are discussed.

Historically, virtual reality (VR) learning environments have been applied to a multitude of learning scenarios, from flight simulation (Hays, Jacobs, Prince, & Salas, 1992) to medical training (Berkley, Turkiyyah, Berg, Ganter, & Weghorst, 2004) to classroom learning (Pantelidis, 1993). One of the most exciting aspects of VR is its ability to leverage interactivity. Virtual systems offer a novel, flexible environment with affordances not possible from previous mediums like video and text (Blascovich et al., 2002). These virtual environments offer unique opportunities for learning on-demand (Trondsen & Vickery, 1997), customization and personalization (Kalyanaraman & Sundar, 2006), and feedback mechanisms (Lee & Nass, 2005). Previous research has shown that on-demand learning provides an advantage over face-to-face human interaction (Trondsen & Vickery, 1997). In a variety of contexts, VR offers possibilities to extend the notion of interactive learning in ways not possible through face-to-face interaction (see Bailenson et al., 2008, for a review of research on learning in VR).

The current studies measured the effects of learning physical tasks from a virtual system when compared to video, leveraging features such as three-dimensional depth cues, representations of the participant next to the instructor, and changes of scene angle not possible through traditional video representations.