A new study finds that human recall is notably better when people are immersed in virtual reality (VR), as opposed to more traditional platforms like a two-dimensional desktop computer or hand-held tablet.

The results of the study were recently published in the journal Virtual Reality.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said co-author Dr. Amitabh Varshney, professor of computer science and dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland (UMD).

Varshney leads several major research efforts on the UMD campus involving virtual and augmented reality (AR), including close collaboration with health care professionals interested in developing AR-based diagnostic tools for emergency medicine and VR training for surgical residents.

For the study, the UMD team used the concept of a “memory palace,” where people recall an object or item by placing it in an imaginary physical location like a building or town. This method — researchers refer to it as spatial mnemonic encoding — has been used since classical times, taking advantage of the human brain’s ability to spatially organize thoughts and memories.

“Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” said Eric Krokos, a doctoral student in computer science and lead author of the paper. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”

The study involved 40 volunteers, mostly UMD students unfamiliar with virtual reality. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one viewed information first via a VR head-mounted display and then on a desktop; the other did the opposite.

Both groups received printouts of well-known faces, such as Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Monroe, and familiarized themselves with the images.

Next, the participants looked at the famous faces through a “memory palace” format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town.

Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace, whether through VR or a computer, for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, the participants were asked to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting: Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above a majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was placed in the center of the room.

Similarly, for the medieval town setting, participants looked at images that included Hillary Clinton’s face on the left side of a building, with Mickey Mouse and Batman placed at varying heights on nearby structures.

Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed.

The key was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and its relation to surrounding structures and faces, and also the location of the image relative to the user’s own body.

“By visually navigating the scene, users could determine that ‘Hillary Clinton is in the top left window and it looks like she is about 20 yards from where I am sitting,’” Krokos said.

The findings revealed an 8.8 percent improvement overall in recall accuracy using the VR headsets, a statistically significant number according to the research team.

In post-study questionnaires, all 40 participants said that they were completely comfortable and adept in navigating a desktop computer to access information, yet all but two said they preferred the immersive VR environment as a potential learning platform. Only two people said they felt “uncomfortable” using VR.

Many of the participants said the immersive “presence” while using VR allowed them to focus better. This was reflected in the study results: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over the desktop display.

“This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace — experienced in an immersive virtual environment — could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” said Dr. Catherine Plaisant, a senior research scientist in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

The UMD team believes this study will lay the groundwork for other scientific inquiry on the value of VR and AR for education.

“By showing that virtual reality can help improve recall, it opens the door to further studies that look at the impact of VR-based training modules at all levels, from elementary school children learning astronomy to trauma residents acquiring the latest knowledge in lifesaving procedures,” Varshney said.

“We believe the future of education and innovation will benefit greatly from the use of these new visual technologies.”

Source: University of Maryland