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A field trip learning experience: the VHI lab at Stanford

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend the annual POD conference in Burlingame, CA, along with my colleagues from DCAL, Lisa Baldez and Cindy Tobery. POD (The Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education), in case you are wondering, is the professional organization for Teaching & Learning Centers, and attracts primarily T&L center directors, faculty developers and instructional designers. It was an amazing conference, and hands-down the most well-designed conference experience I have ever been a part of.

Many useful take-aways and action items for us here at Dartmouth – but what I wanted to tell you about is my field trip to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford (, and some of the amazing research being conducted there.

Visualize this: a decent-size room, no windows, dampened to eliminate echo, with a sophisticated sound system which allows you to experience sound coming at you from all directions. The test subject wears an Occulus Rift – a super-sized pair of goggles which allows you to experience a computer-generated virtual reality (VR) simulation – and some body-sensors. The sensors’ position in space is monitored to within a millimeter and fed back into the simulation software, which adjusts immediately, without any perceptible latency. Move your head – and what you see in the VR simulation shifts accordingly. Take a step forward – and see yourself moving a step into the VR simulation.

About 20 POD attendees got to try out various demo scenarios. Needless to say, this was a lot of fun, but my main impression was how incredibly compelling a VR simulation can be. For example – the first demo which we experienced was simply a simulation of the very room we were in – minus the POD attendees scattered around the periphery of the actual room. A plank lay on the floor of the virtual room, and the begoggled trial subject was asked to stand on it. Easy. Then the floor rumbled, and the floor panels of the virtual room retracted. The virtual plank now spanned a virtual pit, and the test subject was asked to walk across it. Not so easy anymore – the test subject hesitated, balanced, and sweated. Some testers are not able to walk across the plank at all – even though they “know” that, really, they are standing on the carpeted and perfectly solid floor of a Stanford lab.

From here, the experiments got to be a lot more interesting. One simulation, for example, begins by placing the test subject in front of a mirror. Raise your hand, move in any way – and the virtual mirror image moves along with you, as expected. The only twist is that the you in the mirror is an altered you: it might be of a different race, age, or gender. The simulation moves through various interactions and even altercations with others. What is being studied is how such virtual body-switch experiences affect test subjects’ empathy – and they do so quite powerfully.

Image: VR simulation
A POD attendee tries on a different gender in a VR simulation.

A Stanford undergraduate showed us her VR simulation of a corral reef dying due to increased ocean acidity. While a voice-over explained what was happening to the reef, the subject could explore this underwater world, look and go wherever they wanted, and experience the reef’s degradation in a 15-minute time lapse. The student’s research compared learning and attitudes about ocean acidity in subjects which had either this VR experience, or exposure to the same material and script in a “flat” video, without the opportunity to explore or interact. In the short-term, learning between both groups was almost identical; but a later test revealed that long-term learning was dramatically better for those who had had the VR experience.

So – what did I learn from this experience? For one, it was a powerful illustration of how technology can bridge gaps and create experiences that transcend time, space and matter – but, of course, a great novel or a good film can also do this. For another, though, Stanford’s VR research confirmed for me the power of experience, exploration and engagement in promoting deep learning, i.e. learning which both impactful, and very resistant to decay and forgetting. Let’s try to create as many engaging and experiential learning opportunities for our students as possible – with and without technology.

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