Virtual reality helps to learn better: under what conditions?

Invented several decades ago, the concepts of virtual reality and augmented reality for several years they have received very important media attention. The main reasons for this are the significant democratization of technologies and the very strong investments made by GAFAMs in these topics.

Among the application areas that can benefit from these developments is training, an area for which virtual reality or augmented reality offers. many advantages. Without being exhaustive, the following advantages can be noted:

  • the possibility of conducting experiments without any risk to the student or to the material. This is the typical case of very expensive equipment that a learner is likely to damage during their training;

  • or easy placement of the student including in critical situations, such as malfunctioning equipment that can become dangerous;

  • full control of learning situation and student follow-up. This allows the trainer to have at all times a learner’s progress data and in some cases all the actions performed by the learner virtually “replaying” the training sequence.

Therefore, the technology is already old and we would be tempted to believe that all the pitfalls have been sorted out and that it is easy to create a virtual reality application, for example in the field of training. Experience shows that it is not so simple and that many risks, moreover very well documented in the scientific literature, are not taken into account enough by developers in the development of applications.


To illustrate the point about these difficulties encountered by application designers, we will take a few examples.

First, to be reproduced in the virtual world, even the most elementary physical phenomena of the real world must be simulated, be it the effect of gravity, contact or collision between objects, the propagation of light… These simulations often result from resolution. of complex systems of equations that require computing time from computers, and therefore delays during interaction with the user.

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The instantaneity of physical phenomena cannot be reproduced in the virtual and this has consequences on the perception that the user will have of them. Indeed, the delay also called latency can disturb the natural character of the interaction.

Let’s take a very simple example, the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which connects visual perception and head movement received from the inner ear: look at an object and move your head, the vestibulo-ocular reflex allows you to stabilize your gaze on the object. In virtual reality, the smallest latency in the process will be perceived by the user. Perception will be disturbed: objects that are supposed to be fixed (buildings, doors, walls, etc.) will no longer be so in a virtual environment. In some cases, he will experience what is called the downside of simulators (Cyber ​​sickness).

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Another difficulty faced by those who want to use virtual reality for training purposes: the perception of distances. Scientific experiments have clearly shown that these are changed very often in the virtual, sometimes there is an underestimation, sometimes an overestimation. It is therefore logical that, in an application for which distance perception is paramount, such as learning to shoot a basketball, a user may have learning difficulties.

Limitations you should be aware of

In addition, the fact of being immersed in virtual reality disrupts the phenomenon of “accommodation vergence”: this principle of human visual perception consists, when looking at an object, on the one hand in placing the object at the point (accommodation) according to the distance her) and, in turn, to orient the eyes to converge on the same object (vergence). This mechanism is highly synchronized as accommodation and approach will be performed according to the distance from the object.

In virtual reality it is very common for accommodation to be performed at a fixed distance, while vergence is performed at a 3D distance which will depend on the object’s position. Therefore, there is a desynchronization of proximity accommodation, which requires the user to make a special effort, which, if necessary, can become very inconvenient.

Training in virtual format for film actors (Previz/FUI project).
Provided by the author

Finally, we learn from childhood to interact with our environment when we inspect and manipulate objects. In a 3D environment, if the interaction devices and interaction metaphors are not perfectly adapted to the task the user has to perform, then the latter will have difficulty performing it. A typical example is the use of a classical mouse, which moves in a plane, to achieve the rotation of an object in space, is not strictly the ideal tool. In a somewhat colorful way, the user would experience an obstacle in the virtual compared to what he knows how to do in the real world.

As we have just seen, there are some pitfalls in developing virtual reality applications, and many developers are unaware of these limitations. However, it would be too extreme to think that virtual reality does not work. Indeed, subjecting to a very methodical procedure with their analysis and development, it is quite possible to create applications that work respecting certain restrictions:

  • it is necessary to control the complexity of the calculations to control the delay;

  • you have to study scientific literature on perceptual inconsistencies to avoid placing oneself in such situations;

  • regarding the naturalness of the interaction, it is also necessary to study the scientific literature to evaluate, taking into account the application specifications, the best interaction metaphors, so that the user is comfortable and effective when performing the task in a virtual environment .

Check out the lessons

After the basic precautions have been taken, in a training application, we also need to know if the learner has learned – this is the least we can expect – and if there has been a transfer of learning between the virtual device and the real device. This matter of transfer is crucial as it is the main purpose of the operation anyway.

In this case, instead of just hoping that the transfer happens, it might be wise to verify experimentally, that is, get real users and pass validation tests.

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A practical example is taking a subset of users who learn classically (the control group) and another subset who learn from the virtual reality application. Appropriate analyzes in both groups should make it possible to assess understanding, acquisition of knowledge and/or procedure, memorization after a certain time in order to validate the quality of learning in the virtual compared to the real one. More in-depth analyzes are necessary when comparison with reality is impossible (case of rare or dangerous events for the student and/or the device).

In conclusion, the overall picture is neither completely white (in virtual reality everything works wonderfully) nor completely black (nothing works). We are clearly on a middle path. Depending on the good control the limitations of realization applications related to the inner limits of a user’s perception, it is possible to create training applications which work perfectly.

Recently, a new terminology has appeared: metaverse, increasingly present in the media and industrial marketing. However, the concept and scientific works on this topic date from the early 90s and the technical heart of the metaverse is built on very old technological elements like virtual reality, virtual people, networks… So it’s a very nice marketing coup . of the company that kept this noise.

Of course, the fact of putting the spotlight on this topic will cause some companies to invest and some labs to take up this topic, so it’s a safe bet that in the coming months and years this concentration of resources will bring effects. that is, new developments and innovations from which the trainings will benefit. It is also not in vain to ask the question about the dangers in the evolution of society that metaverses make us fear: is this really the society we want? Is the game worth the candle?

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