A/Prof Erica Southgate was commissioned by the Australian Government to produce research on emerging technologies for schools including current state-of-evidence, and pedagogical, practical and ethical advice. The project produced the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in Schools Research Report, a short read version of the report written for teachers and infographic posters for students. You can find these here:
I was recently commissioned to write a literature review on immersive virtual reality for teachers by the New South Wales Department of Education. The Department kindly distilled the literature review into an infographic to guide teacher practice
I welcome dialogue on the literature review from teachers, researchers and developers – A/Prof Erica Southgate
Fully immersive VR is a truly embodied experience. You move and interact with virtual objects and characters and, if the virtual environment is networked, with other players. It’s not like watching a movie, it’s like being in it and you can make things happen. This feeling of ‘being there’ in the virtual world is called presence or, when you are with others, social presence.
Immersive VR systems (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) are designed so that the user is ‘protected’ or ‘contained’ by a virtual Guardian or Chaperone system. These systems consist of a 3D grid cage which pops up when the user strays beyond the safe, object free area that they have set up when configuring the equipment (see the screenshot below for Oculus Rift). Guardian systems temporarily break the sense of immersive presence by providing a visual cue that the user needs to move back into the safe zone.
During phase 1 of the VR School Project, we observed that students moved in very different ways especially in Minecraft VR where there is a great deal of autonomy in the open world game.
Some students moved very little, favoring small hand gestures and head movements and minor body rotations. Others rotated a lot but within a fairly restricted footprint but moved their heads, hands and arms more freely. There were also students who were very kinetic; they danced, boxed, galloped on the spot on virtual horses, waved their arms around, crouched down, kicked and repeatedly rotated, often getting the tether (which attaches the headset to the laptop) wrapped around their bodies.
All students in VR needed supervision, even the less active movers. In the VR School project, either the researcher or another students acted as a ‘spotter’. The spotter’s role was to make sure that the students in VR did not collide with objects or student spectators. This role was necessary because the engineered solution to safety, in this case the Guardian system, was sometimes ‘ignored’ by students. I have put the word ‘ignored’ in quote marks because it did not appear that students consciously put themselves at risk of bumping into objects. Rather, some students appeared to be so immersed that they automatically continued their actions outside of the safe area and seemed surprised when the spotter told them they were too close to objects and needed reorientation.
Furthermore, it appeared that the intensity of immersive VR could occasionally trigger a flight or fright response. For example, on one occasion when using the survival mode of Minecraft VR, a student was violently startled when spiders began to approach her. She began to crab-walk sideways at speed and the researcher had to speak loudly to her and place a hand on her shoulder to stop her running off.
There is certainly much more research that needs to be done on the adequacy of Guardian systems in breaking intense feelings of presence in VR, especially for those who are new to the experience but also in relation to startle responses. Some research suggests that young people can become so immersed in virtual and augmented reality environments that they enact unsafe behaviour due to a lack of awareness.
In most cases the Guardian system combined with the physical sensation of being tethered broke the feeling of presence enough so that student regulated their own safety in VR. The current version of the Oculus Rift is tethered, however the new Oculus Go is not. There are certainly safety issue to be explored with untethered design and practical and duty of care issues regarding the need for constant supervision of students who are in immersive VR. Much more public discussion regarding these issues is required.
Associate Professor Erica Southgate
Child protection is a serious issue in today’s society. There are laws, policies and procedures to ensure the welfare of children and young people. Schools are required to provide a protective and caring environment where student safety and well-being are paramount. In Australia, working with children checks are required by law before people can work or volunteer in settings with children and young people. School education systems have clear guidelines for teachers on what constitutes acceptable practice and respectful behaviour towards students.
When you first use VR headsets and hand controllers they can be awkward to put on, take off and adjust. Students often ask teachers, researchers or other students to help them with this. Even with a virtual guardian or chaperone system which indicates safe boundaries, people can move around in VR and come too close to objects putting them at potential risk. It is sometimes necessarily to help students to re-orientate back to a safe space in the real world so that they can avoid hitting objects (as part of the VR School project we always have a ‘spotter’ who looks out for the safety of students). When using a headset a person is either in darkness while they are waiting for an application to load or in the virtual world; basically, they cannot see what is going on outside or who is near them. It can be a bit of a shock to be in a virtual world and have someone in the real world start talking to you or putting a hand on your shoulder! Importantly, we need to be particularly mindful of students who have special needs, life circumstances or cultural norms which have made them touch-adverse.
So how can teachers, researchers and student-helpers interact with a person in VR in a safe and respectful way?
As part of the VR School project we have developed the DATA protocol. This involves involves 3 actions outlined in this poster:
Training teachers, researchers and student-helpers in the DATA method of interaction will go a long way in ensuring VR experiences are safe and respectful for all involved
Globally, an estimated 1.4 billion people play computer games, with growth in popularity driven by mobile device uptake, app proliferation and social media engagement. In Australia, around 98% of households with children have video games, 90% of gamer parents play games with their children, and 35% of children have played games as part of the school curriculum.
There are two types of games used for learning. The first type are ‘serious games’. These are designed to harness the popularity of recreational gaming for specific educative or training purposes. The second type are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games. These are recreational games that can be adopted/adapted for learning (the original versions of Minecraft are an example of this).
There is growing evidence that serious and COTS games can be highly motivating and produce positive effects on learning.
However, teachers do face decisions about the selection of games, their alignment to curriculum, suitability for learners, and their place in the pedagogical repertoire. In this networked world, there are also ethical and technical issues to resolve.
To assist teachers in choosing and using computer games effectively in classrooms, we have produced a paper on evidence related to this and we have developed a practical framework in poster form (above). This framework is designed to scaffold teachers to ask critical questions about gaming for learning. We hope that it can be used to increase the effective integration of games into classrooms to benefit both teachers and learners.
Dr Shamus Smith and Associate Professor Erica Southgate, developers of the serious games for literacy, Apostrophe Power and Sentence Hero (link to game apps here), available for free download from the App Store and Google Play.
References are in the paper (link above).
What is highly immersive technology and what does the research say about using it with children and young people?
The increasing availability of highly immersive virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology that often uses head-mounted displays (or headsets) has raised questions about its safety and ethical implications in educational settings, workplaces and for leisure. However, little is known about the impact of highly immersive experiences on children and young people.
While there is no accepted definition of ‘highly immersive’, it is reasonable to say that there are some new technologies that can create very intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’ in virtual and augmented spaces. These technologies allow for a high degree of interaction and autonomy. Different types of technologies and software applications produce different levels of feeling immersed and there is still much work to be done on categorising levels of immersion and their effects on different groups of people. As part of the VR School project we are using the Oculus Rift. This technology does offer high levels of immersion particularly in virtual environments that allow navigation, manipulation, interaction and free play.
The other day I was flying in Minecraft VR, soaring high above the landscape. I was enjoying the wonder and freedom of virtual flying, until I needed to land! As I double clicked the controller and began to descend, my stomach rose to my mouth, I gasped, closed my eyes and braced to hit the ground. When I took the headset off, I was in a crouching position, knees still bent to absorb the ‘impact’.
Highly immersive technologies create cognitive, affective and sensory experiences that can often feel very ‘real’. The reactions of people using this type of technology can range from joy to terror depending on what they are experiencing and their past history. This is why we need to think carefully and ethically about the use of such technology. This is especially true when using immersive technology with children and young people because they are at different developmental stages compared to adults and this can affect how they feel, understand and react to immersive experiences.
The problem at this relatively early stage is that there is very little research conducted with children and young people using these technologies. What research there is indicates a need to explicitly bring together evidence from the child development literature with established ethical principles and our knowledge of the affordances or features of technologies.
While there are a number of ethical principles to consider, beneficence is a key one. Beneficence focuses on the welfare of people and a commitment to ‘do no harm’, especially in relation to children and youth. So let’s consider beneficence in relation to what we do know from research on immersive technology and children.
We do know that virtual reality has been used to good effect for paediatric acute pain distraction in clinical settings although there is poorer evidence on chronic pain distraction (Shahrbanian et al., 2012). So in this instance, VR is certainly not doing harm.
There is also a documented experiment using a virtual roller coaster ride which compared the prefrontal brain arousal of adults & children (mean age 8.7 years). This experiment found that children were much more susceptible to the arousing impact of audio/visual stimuli and appeared unable to critically evaluate and monitor their experience or inhibit their sense of presence in the virtual environment. In other words, because of their developmental stage, children were more strongly drawn into the experience of the roller coaster ride. Because children were unable to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way adults could, the authors concluded that there should be more reluctance to ‘expose children to emotional virtual reality stimuli as currently practiced’ (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Given this evidence, it is fair to say that some immersive experiences may cause distress because the developmental stage of a child’s brain does not allow it to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way an adult brain can.
Between the ages of 3-12 years children gradually develop the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality (Sharon & Woolley, 2004). Ask any group of children between these ages if they believe in Santa and you will find that there will be an age variation between those who believe versus those that don’t – I admit I still believed in Santa until I was 11. The ability to distinguish fantasy and reality reflects individual social and cognitive development. It is important to consider this in relation to the use of highly immersive technology.
For example, Segovia et al. (2009) found that some primary (elementary) school aged children exposed to the virtual reality environment of swimming with Orcas developed a ‘false memory’ of the experience: ‘The media richness of the mental imagery…was high enough to be confused with the richness of an event in the physical world’. Similarly in another experiment, 50% of primary school aged children believed that an experience in immersive VR was real one week after being put in the virtual environment (Stanford VHIL, 2015).
And its not just young children that we need to be concerned about. In the outdoor augmented reality game, Alien Contact, older students (aged 11-16 years) asked researchers if aliens had actually crashed at their school and if the researchers were FBI agents (Dunleavy et al., 2009).
Just because a technology can afford certain immersive experiences doesn’t mean they will be psychologically appropriate or safe for all children and young people. There are a number of aspects to consider before using immersive technologies with children and youth as the diagram below indicates:
Diagram: Conceptual framework for considering aspects of immersive environments in a developmental context (Southgate, Smith & Scevak, 2017).
It’s important that as new immersive technologies become widely adopted that educators engage with questions about their safe and ethical use in the context of what we know about the cognitive, social, moral and affective development of the child and long-held ethical principles such as beneficence. A careful, evidence-led approach is required to the use of highly immersive technologies in schools. This is part of our duty of care towards students.
If you would like to know more about ethical principles, child development and immersive technologies you can read a paper we have written on the topic. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you would like to discuss.
Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and VR flying aficionado.
- Baumgartner, T. et al. (2008). Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds: prefrontal brain regions differentially orchestrate presence experience in adults and children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 8
- Dunleavy, M. et al. (2009). Affordances and limitations of immersive participatory augmented reality simulations for teaching and learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(1), 7-22.
- Segovia, K. & Bailenson, J. (2009). Virtually true: Children’s acquisition of false memories in virtual reality. Media Psychology, 12(4), 371-393.
- Shahrbanian, S. et al. (2012). Use of virtual reality (immersive vs. non immersive) for pain management in children and adults: A systematic review of evidence from randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 2(5), 1408-1422.
- Sharon, T. & Woolley, J.D. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 293-310.
- Southgate, E., Smith, S.P. & Scevak, J. (2017). Asking ethical questions in research using immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies with children and youth. In Virtual Reality (VR), 2017 IEEE Proceedings (pp. 12-18). IEEE. (E1) http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7892226/
- Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab (2015). vhil.stanford.edu/news/2015/stanford-studies-virtual-reality-kids-andthe-effects-of-make-believe – accessed 19 Sept 2016.