Immersive reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality are all new ways of stimulating our senses and hence our brain.
Although intuitively one can assume that the more stimuli we provide to our brain, the more it will learn, when one start to reflect on this doubts creep in. A number of researchers have pointed to the problem of information and knowledge overload (there are a nice list of quote on information overload here, worth reading!) and some have noticed that information overload is actually decreasing our attention, hence decreasing our learning capabilities.
I had the opportunity of reading a pre-print copy of a book by Derrick de Kerckhove where he makes the observation that the printed word is much more engaging than a screen displaying that word. He says that with the word printed on paper you have the control of time, not so with a word on a screen.
In a time of information overloading one could look for abstraction: images are a way to abstract from text, they might provide a holistic representation and are clearly soliciting a different part of our brain (this has been proved by researchers detecting which are of the brain are engaged when reading versus watching).
Now in a paper published by Springer-Verlag a team of researchers from University of Maryland provides analytic data on the learning effectiveness of virtual reality versus a normal screen (so they are not tackling VR versus paper) when spatial knowledge is involved. They show that the ability to remember (hence the effectiveness of memorisation) is higher when using VR goggles. It seems that it is not just the fact that VR can recreate a volumetric display that are more in synch with people experience, it is also about stimulating an emotional response deriving from the feeling of being there rather than watching from afar.
The problem with recreating a credible experience is the ability to walk around, something that is very limited when donning VR goggles. Here researchers have found a way to cheat our brain: a camera inside the goggles detects the eye blinking -a brief time when we are completely blind since our eyelids are closed- and the saccadic movements – these are again creating blind spots as we move our focus from one place of the image to another. In these brief period of blindness the computer changes the image giving the brain the feeling of moving a great distance even though the movement (which is required to really complement the feeling) was actually just a tiny step (watch the clip).
There is not yet a clear answer to the question “can VR boost learning” although partial answers are emerging. It is most likely, this is my bet, that the future of learning will see a variety of channels stimulating our brain and the real issue will be the coordination of those channels.
The overload of information and knowledge is here to stay, and it will get worse. We will have to adapt as we already did in the past. Today we know an infinitesimal fraction of what is the available knowledge. Most crucial is the fact that we do not know what is essential to know to live: we do not know how to make a fork, we do not know how to make a medicine…. and so on and so on. Actually, if you just think about it of all the things we do every day and of all the objects resources we are using the vast majority is beyond our capability to create. We have to have them available, we have outsourced vital life knowledge to the “society”.
In the coming decade with the emergence of machine intelligence we will be likely outsource life knowledge to machines, entering into a symbiotic relationship with them. It is not machine replacing us, it is partnering with machine as a new fundamental characteristic of our society.