In virtual reality, real problems remain to be resolved

Angela M. Rogers
January 24, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Virtual reality is becoming more widespread in gaming, shopping, research, education and training, but is not a perfect match to the real world. Discrepancies create usability problems with accessing virtual tools, or getting distracted, confused, lost or cybersick. Jiayan Zhao, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and a developer at the Center for Immersive Experiences, is conducting experiments to reduce usability problems and improve the user’s virtual experience.

“From the perspective of spatial cognition, the virtual environment can largely simulate the actual environment, but some users experienced serious motion sickness — something we don’t want to have happen— and they could not finish the experiment or their data could not be used,” Zhao said. “There are huge individual differences in virtual experiences. Some people may already have had experience with VR, so they performed well, but for those who never used VR before, they had challenges in performing the tasks.”

New VR users tend to be very excited about everything, and that distracts them from performing the tasks, Zhao said. “The novelty effect can be distracting to the learning goal,” he said.

Other problems in creating effective virtual environments include usability of tools, spatial awareness, scale and locomotion.

“For example, with a workbench for data analysis, the user is interacting with tools, using a hand to push a button or using the tip of the pen, and in some cases, they simply don’t understand how to do that,” Zhao said. “Age or kinesthetic awareness could be factors, so the tools need to be as simple as possible.”

Spatial awareness is another usability problem.

In the virtual environment, the way one moves about and sees objects is very different from the real environment, Zhao said. “In reality, we perceive our surroundings primarily from an egocentric perspective, using our body as a reference,” he said. “But virtual environments offer different perspectives: top-down like a map, a high perspective like a tower or hilltop and multiple ground-level perspectives, even transparency. Which is best?”

Scale is another problem in the virtual environment because it is much larger than the physical space that can be incorporated into immersive virtual reality (iVR) systems.

“That brings up problems with wayfinding and moving around,” Zhao said.

Zhao is now applying in an immersive virtual environment what he learned about wayfinding for his master’s degree, using mobile phones and navigation applications. He did that work at SUNY Albany with his adviser and Penn State geography alumnus Rui Li.

“Overcoming the limit of mobile phone screens for visualizing spatial information was the key to support spatial learning in our project,” Li said.

 “A mobile screen is very small, and the number of landmarks you can view is very limited,” Zhao said.

To address this problem, Zhao created an algorithm to show distant landmarks.

“If you are in Paris, for example, the location of the Eiffel Tower is important as an anchor for your mental map,” Zhao said.  “Even though it may be far off, I projected it to the edge of the screen to indicate what direction it is.”

Li and Zhao adapted visual variables from cartographic design.

“Jiayan successfully implemented four prototypes with size, saturation, fuzziness and transparency, respectively, to visualize those distant objects and created the visualization based on ordinal and ratio levels of measurement for us to assess their efficiency,” Li said.

At that time, Zhao said he did not know how to program. “When I was an undergraduate student in geosciences, I analyzed rock samples and didn’t learn anything about computers or technology,” Zhao said. “But then I started to use them and taught myself.” He said the important lesson for him was, “do not constrain yourself, and be brave about different possibilities in your life.”

Since coming to Penn State, Zhao has applied his experiences and his thinking about spatial cognition to virtual environments.

“A virtual environment is powerful,” he said. “It combines the power of the actual environment with the digital medium. It can trigger emotions in users that may lead to better learning and improve access to science for underrepresented communities.”

Zhao said his goal is to make a contribution to the science of virtual reality and increase public engagement in science.

“I want to be a professor. I really enjoy doing research,” Zhao said.



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Last Updated September 03, 2020