Effectiveness of a Semi-Immersive Virtual Environment in Understanding Human-Environment Interactions
Edsall, Robert M., Larson, Kelli L., Cartography and Geographic Information Science
The appeal of immersive and semi-immersive virtual reality environments (VEs) is undeniable, particularly when their mission is the facilitation of decision making among users who would normally not have access to such technology. Universities and research laboratories have introduced visualization environments with features such as three-dimensional animations that can be viewed with stereoscopic glasses on multiple screens that surround users. VEs are, at least to present generations of users, still novel and exciting. When the environments (including non-technological aspects of these rooms, such as their size, furnishings, and acoustics) and the associated animated, interactive, 3D representations are designed well, they may facilitate scientific inquiry, understanding, and decision making through interactive and immersive representations, and engage users in affective and intangible ways than more conventional displays and representations cannot (Bishop and Lange 2005; Fisher and Unwin 2002).
An "appealing" environment, of course, does not necessarily equate to an effective environment for visualizing data and making decisions. Virtual reality environments are expensive, and creating applications for them requires significant investments in expertise and time. Thus, these environments need to be critically scrutinized in order to convince both users and developers that such investments are merited. Yet, the technology involved with VEs is advancing quickly enough to overtake the empirical evidence of its usefulness. The result can be complex, feature-filled environments that represent little if any improvement over more traditional information-communication media employed for decision making, consensus building, or knowledge construction.
In this paper, we report on an experiment performed in a semi-immersive visualization environment, Arizona State University's Decision Theater (DT), to evaluate laypersons' knowledge and perceptions of critical environmental problems, specifically groundwater overdraft and the urban heat island in the greater Phoenix region. We assess the ways that knowledge and perceptions of these two environmental problems are influenced by presentations in an immersive three-dimensional environment, and whether important differences in the two problems influence the environment's potential for understanding and decision making.
Beyond our empirical findings, we also articulate methodological challenges to this sort of study, highlighting not only the strengths and limitations of our own study (and alternative approaches) but also challenges and future research directions for assessments of virtual environments.
Assessment of Virtual Environments: Lessons from Education and GIScience
"Virtual reality" (VR) environments include a wide variety of applications and technologies. Most VEs attempt to replicate a three-dimensional space or phenomena, often because exploration would be difficult or cost prohibitive in the real world (Demiralp et al. 2006; Ragusa and Bochenek 2001). These phenomena may exist only in the future, may be dangerous, abstract, or at a scale that is unreasonable to explore for humans. Because of this transformation of "real" space to "virtual" space, cartographers and GIScientists are particularly interested in adopting the VR technology to the study of geographic phenomena (Bodum 2005; Fung et al. 2004).
Virtual reality environments are useful for acquiring spatial knowledge about the world and for aiding spatial orientation, wayfinding, and navigation (Bodum 2005; Durlach et al. 2000; Koh et al. 1999). These benefits are not surprising because virtually interacting with a 3D space is specifically designed to mimic physical interaction in realistic ways. Virtual reality rooms like the Decision Theater, as opposed to desktop VR on a single computer or a head-mounted display, enable an intuitive and shared experience that is said to be beneficial in group work and decision making (Stone 2001; Wilson 1994; Usoh and Slater 1995). In an educational context, VR is thought to facilitate learning because it exemplifies several cognitive principles that provide positive educational results, particularly in the allowance of multimedia (dynamic audio and visual stimuli typical of VR) for multiple senses and perspectives to simultaneously process information (Paivio 1990; Dede 1995; Mayer and Moreno 2002).
Limniou et al. (2008) tested the educational benefits of VEs in the context of chemistry education, comparing VR animations of molecular phenomena in a walk-in VR environment (similar to the Decision Theater) with 2D animations on desktop computers, finding that students' comprehension of the complex 3D processes increased in the 3D condition, and that their enthusiasm for learning was raised. The methodology in their study contrasts with most other recent studies (including the one reported here) in that they compared educational benefits with respect to the type of environment (2D vs. 3D) while others examine variation in understanding with respect to characteristics of the phenomena or concepts in the VR presentation, or characteristics of the students themselves. For example, Barnett et al. (2005) found that the use of a VE in astronomy education was particularly effective when modeling processes that required a change of perspective (e.g., a rotation or "fly-around") in a 3D space, which is common in astronomy and, of course, geography. One of the conclusions of Taylor and Disinger (1997), who surveyed educators in environmental science about 3D VR, was that VR was seen as most effective when students were afforded opportunities to experience phenomena not directly perceptible in the real world. Our study follows this general strategy, in that we focus on characteristics of the phenomena in our examination of the differences in perceptions and knowledge of risk following the viewing of an immersive VR presentation.
In addition, we contribute to literature (here and, more specifically, in Larson and Edsall (in press) that uses subjects' prior knowledge of the phenomena to explain differential influences of the VR presentations. For example, Li and Grabowski (2006) compared animated and static graphics in education but found that characteristics of the participants, particularly in the amount of prior knowledge they held, was more significant in explaining the variation in learning than the representation type. In a previous study at ASU's Decision Theater, Block (2006) found that three-dimensional depictions of the groundwater in the immersive environment were more readily understood by viewers with less technical understanding of and training in hydro-geology. By contrast, expert professionals who commonly work with contour maps depicting groundwater aquifer characteristics had a more difficult time switching to the virtual environment. In addition to considering different user characteristics, Block's study of a real-world application of the Decision Theater also highlighted the importance of communicating across people with varying levels of knowledge, technical and otherwise. Thus, a critical difference in the effects of various information formats may be the users' familiarity or a priori understanding of the phenomena.
Excitement for 3D and multimedia presentations in education is tempered by research which cautions that information presented in multimedia or 3D formats must (as is the case with static maps) still be chosen and designed carefully--that more information, in visually more dazzling displays, is not necessarily better (Mayer et al. 2001). Maket al. (2005) recently compared 2D and 3D virtual representations in environmental impact statements, for instance, concluding that the more simplified 2D virtual model was less complicated and took less time for the average user to interpret. This reflects the opinion of Fisher et al. (1997), who argued that 3D graphs may be visually more pleasing but simple 2D graphs are better in terms of extracting information with respect to accuracy and ease. Clearly, such research findings highlight the need to assess the usability of such systems, the designs of which must be driven by the needs of the users, the talents of the developer, and the potential of the technology.
Assessment of Visualization in Context: Lessons from Decision Science
Visual information is particularly useful for communicating and facilitating environmental understanding and decision making. As Davies and Medychyj-Scott (1994, p. 190) affirm, visualization is useful in the transfer of ideas because of the "richness of visual signals and the problem-solving nature of vision." Documented benefits of visual computerized information include focusing participants on particular aspects of a policy problem, constraining the scope of the problem, and engaging stakeholders in decision making (Carver et al. 1996; Zigurs et al. 1999). While information technologies might aid group decision-making processes and negotiations, cognitive understanding, trust in computer technology, and other factors constrain their utility (Carver et al. 1996; Reitsma 1996). Thus, research is needed to fully understand how computer-generated information displays differentially influence human understanding, perceptions, and preferences (Gershon and Eick 1997; Davies and Medyckyj-Scott 1994). This is especially true for environmental decisionmaking situations, which are often plagued by complex problems, conflicting interests, and scientific uncertainty.
Technical information about environmental problems and their mitigation are not necessarily linked to perceptions about their severity, causes, or alternative solutions. This fact is evident in the well documented lay-expert divide in the risk perception literature (Slovic 1987; McDaniels et al. 1997; Leiserowitz 2005; White and Hall 2006). The result is divergent perceptions or rationales about environmental problems and how to address them, as they are often the source of disagreements, controversies, or miscommunications (Schwarz and Thompson 1990; Ozawa 1996). Given the propensity for conflicting views on complicated environmental issues, a critical way in which visual information and VE technology might facilitate group decision …
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Publication information: Article title: Effectiveness of a Semi-Immersive Virtual Environment in Understanding Human-Environment Interactions. Contributors: Edsall, Robert M. - Author, Larson, Kelli L. - Author. Journal title: Cartography and Geographic Information Science. Volume: 36. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2009. Page number: 367+. © 2008 American Congress on Surveying & Mapping. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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