“I am here now and my choices determine everything.”
Immersion considers how three psychological variables: presence, flow, and embodiment contribute to interest in empathy and learning.
Presence is an antecedent to flow, and flow has a significant influence on enjoyment as well as performance. Presence and flow have a positive influence on embodiment.
Embodiment is the experience of self-presence as a psychological state in which the virtual self is experienced as the actual self in either sensory or nonsensory ways.
Presence, flow, and embodiment all contribute toward empathy and engagement. We use our knowledge and study of these elements to inform our immersive learning experience design.
“If you are there and what appears to be happening is really what is happening, then this is happening to you.”
For first time users of VR, presence is a phenomenon that is profound and not soon forgotten. The feeling of actually ‘being there’ inside the medium, rather than looking at the medium from the outside through the 2D plan of a screen, elicits universal amazement and wonder.
Presence is the psychological perception of being (involved and immersed) in a virtual environment despite being physically situated in reality. Presence occurs when a person is unable to differentiate the sensory information from a hardware-mediated environment from that of reality, interpreting the virtual input as though it were from the real world.
Four factors determine presence: distraction, fidelity, sensory engagement, and control (Witmer and Singer, 1998). Those factors are listed in the order in which they are usually realized by the learner, each becoming more significant as the learner develops more VR literacy.
Distraction can occur from an improper fit or focus, display interruptions, or from physical distractions from the real world such as loud noises, an entangled tether cable, or bumping into furnishings or people.
Fidelity relates to the clarity and believability of the virtual environment. This includes resolution, color, accuracy of modeling, the extent to which the environment matches the learner’s expectation for that content.
Sensory engagement is at a minimum visual and auditory, it and can also include touch (eg. haptics, wind, moisture) and smells. The base visual sense is from the display in VR moving according to the learner’s head movement. The base auditory sense is spatial audio in VR where sounds appear to be coming from sources and those sounds change respectively when the learner moves their head or moves within the environment. VR hand controllers provide rudimentary haptics through vibration, and custom hand controllers are available that interact with the real world through peripheral equipment. Accessories are available to attached to VR headsets with small fans and emitters that create odors.
The sense of control begins with ‘degrees of freedom’, which describes the range in which the VR headset and its hand controllers can sense changes in location and rotation – both in respect to each other and in respect to the real world. Mobile VR (GearVR, OculusGO, Daydream View) typically has ‘3 degrees of freedom’, which means that the headset and the single hand controller can sense rotation in respect to each other and to the real world, but neither can sense changes in location. Desktop VR (Oculus Touch, HTC Vive) have ’6 degrees of freedom’ because the headset and dual hand controllers can sense both changes in rotation and in location in respect to each other and to the real world.
The sense of control is significantly impacted by the quality of the user interface and by the level of control, responsiveness, and naturalness of interactions and locomotion.
Presence is an emergent element in the ILXD model, where the result is greater than just the sum of the four contributing factors. When the experience is free of distractions, high in fidelity, rich in sensory engagement, and deep in control affordances it provides for heightened immersion supporting flow and embodiment. Designing with presence in mind is a high priority in immersive learning experience design because it is critical to ‘selling’ the learning experience.
Flow is a term that was coined by a leading researcher in optimal experience psychology, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who began his career studying the motivations of (board) game players, rock climbers, and painters (Csikszentmihalyi 1975a). In this research, Csikszentmihalyi described Flow as the heightened and improved state of mind experienced while subjects were most engaged in a task and performing at their best.
Csikszentmihalyi expanded his work to study people in their ordinary lives using the experience sampling method research tool (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1990). On the basis of these empirical studies, Csikszentmihalyi specified eight major elements of the flow experience common to the majority of people during optimal experiences:
A challenging but tractable task to be completed
One is fully immersed in the task, no other concerns intrude
One feels fully in control
One has complete freedom to concentrate on the task
The task has clear unambiguous goals
One receives immediate feedback on actions
One becomes less conscious of the passage of time
Sense of identity lessens, but is afterward reinforced
Csikszentmihalyi also formed the hypothesis that flow occurs as the balance between perceived skills and challenges [Csikszentmihalyi 1975a], thus what he calls the “flow channel” is a linear function on a plane with skills and challenges as axes.
Flow State is an experience description construct ubiquitous in game-based learning research. It is most commonly represented with a diagram that depicts eight conditions that are reached on the plane with skill and challenge as the axes.
This diagram explains the alternative states that occur when challenges or skills are initially too low or when a task must be repeated too often.
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory states that it should be possible for any person to experience Flow in any activity, but that the participant and the activity must meet certain prerequisites before Flow can occur. Of these, perhaps the most important are that the person should have an autotelic personality (the ability to recognize and seize upon opportunities for flow) and that his or her skills match the activity’s challenges in precisely the right ratio.
But, flow is isomorphic across all types of people—it is a universally uniform state of being, and all people recognize it when it is explained to them. Since universal cognitive states are inherent in the flow experience, there are certain types of universally accessible activities that preempt and enable these cognitive states. These include activities that facilitate flow far more easily than others for anybody, regardless of their skill in that activity. Games are one of these activities because the cognitive state necessary for the activity closely matches that achieved when in flow. An individual’s propensity for happiness, brain chemistry, and capacity to concentrate will still impact their ability to experience flow, but the point is that the individual will start off that much closer to the cognitive state achieved in flow, by simply pursuing activities of this class. (Cowley, Charles, Black, Hickey, 2009)
Among the possible classes of activities, game-based learning in VR is the ideal for the activation of the flow state due to the heightened propensity provided by presence.
In the ILXD model, a critical objective is achieving and maintaining a flow state by balancing the challenge of learning activities in the experience with the learner’s skills, interests, and motivation. It is expected that throughout the duration of the learning experience a flow state should naturally ebb and rise in response to the story arc of the experience, pacing, and scaffolding of challenges.
Flow is addictive. Flow state has been shown to release neurotransmitters including: seratonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins. Csikszentmihalyi’s research showed a strong correlation between flow state and happiness. Every learner has their own unique set of factors and stimuli that puts them in a flow state. But, the end effect is similar in all learners.
A flow state becomes critical objective in the ILXD model because it promotes empathy and heightens engagement in all respects.
Effective learning experience design leads to embodiment, which is a critical component of ILXD. A sense of embodiment in VR is the subjective experience of using and ‘having’ a body. It is a sense that emerges when properties and behaviors in VR are processed as if they were the properties of the learner’s own biological body.
The learner’s whole body can be ‘replaced’ by a virtual body in VR so when they look down towards their own body, they would see the virtual body instead. Additionally, when they look towards a virtual mirror they would see this virtual body reflected back. This is already a very powerful cue to the brain to feel this virtual body as their own since throughout life whenever we look down towards our body, or in a mirror, of course we see our own body.
Cognitive neuroscientists have discovered that our body representation is surprisingly flexible, where the brain can easily be tricked into the illusion that a virtual hand is your hand or that a virtual character body is your body. These illusions work well in VR, and such embodiment induces perceptual, attitudinal, and behavioral changes that are concomitant with the displayed body type (Slater and Sancheze-Vives, 2014).
The idea of ‘body semantics’ is that when the brain generates an illusion of body ownership and agency over a virtual body then it also generates attitudes and behaviors that are concomitant with that type of body, independently of any other factors such as social expectation. This is an intrinsic property of brain functioning, and not necessarily a product of social expectation, whether actual or imagined.
This is often called the “Proteus Effect”, which is a phenomenon in which the behavior of an individual in VR is changed by the characteristics of their avatar. This change is due to the individual's knowledge about the behaviors that other users typically associate with those characteristics. Like the adjective protean (meaning versatile or mutable), the concept's name alludes to the shape changing abilities of the Greek god Proteus. The Proteus effect was first introduced by researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University in June 2007.
There are three primary representations of embodiment in VR:
Sense of Self-Location
The sense of self-location refers to one’s spatial experience of being inside a body. Furthermore, this spatial representation is always self-attributed; that is, the body where one perceives one’s self is one’s own body. Finally, this body also obeys the intentions of one’s self; for example, one is the author of one’s body’s actions.
Self-location is a determinate volume in space where one feels to be located. Normally self-location and body-space coincide in the sense that one feels self-located inside a physical body.
Self-location is highly determined by the visuospatial perspective given that this is normally egocentric. Indeed, it has been shown that where one feels located can be influenced by the origin of visuospatial perspective.
Other studies on the role of perspective (e.g., Slater, Sanchez-Vives, 2014), showed that physiological responses to a threat given to an artificial body were greater for first-person perspective than for third-person perspective.
Vestibular signals are also considered to play a significant role in one’s self-localization. These signals contain information with respect to the translation and rotation of the body in addition to orientation with respect to gravity.
Sense of Agency
The sense of agency refers to the sense of having ‘‘global motor control, including the subjective experience of action, control, intention, motor selection and the conscious experience of will’’ (Blanke & Metzinger, 2009).
The sense of agency results from the comparison of the learner’s expectation and the actual result in regards to movement. When the learner has taken an action to move in VR and the movement that occurs closely matches the intention, the learner feels that they are the agent of that action. The converse is also true, when there is a discrepancy between the action to move and the resulting movement in VR the sense of agency is negatively impacted.
Sense of Body Ownership
Body ownership refers to one’s self-attribution of a body. It has a possessive character and it implies that the body is the source of the experienced sensations.
The sense of body ownership emerges from a combination of:
Afferent sensory information that arrives to our brain from our sensory organs; for example, visual, tactile, and proprioceptive input.
Cognitive processes that may modulate the processing of sensory stimuli; for example, the existence of sufficient human likeness to presume that an artificial body can be one’s body.
In order to induce ownership toward an external object, a basic morphological similarity with the real body part is needed. Body ownership is not exclusive to artificial body parts but can also be felt for artificial whole bodies.
Embodied cognition acknowledges that the mind and body are agents working together to make meaning of VR experiences.
VR can convey experience or feelings to a learner. In VR environments, learners can strongly feel emotions or situations by being in the same space and close to another character.
Becoming absorbed in VR can stimulate empathy. Stimulated empathy in VR can make users perceive a virtual environment as a more realistic and generally empathic experience.
Through empathy, users can feel a sense of embodiment or embodied cognition. Learners in VR are able to embody experiences by viewing, playing, and feeling perceptual cues linked to those experiences. Embodied experiences create the sensation of personally having an experience in VR. Learners who embody their avatars tend to perceive avatar actions as their own. Embodiment has a positive effect on engagement.
The immerse layer of the ILXD model is the first level of learner engagement. The learner is present and experiences a flow state so they are fully able to embody the learning experience. Immersion supports the learner so they are able to transition into the feel layer of the learning experience and feel connected to the learning.