Virtual Reality Applications in Physical Education

Article excerpt

Editor: Mel. E. Finkenberg

I recently visited DisneyQuest, an indoor interactive theme park where guests can shoot the virtual rapids, ride in a roller coaster simulator, sail on the virtual sea, and ride a bicycle in a virtual race against other park visitors. In other venues, visitors can climb walls and play sports via virtual reality equipment. While running from venue to venue, I noticed that the teenagers were eagerly moving from one activity to another. As I watched I could not help thinking, "Why don't we see this same enthusiasm in physical education classes?"

Mohnsen (2001) noted that in 1985 a programmer developed a virtual reality system so that he could learn to juggle. With virtual goggles over his eyes and virtual gloves on his hands, which were both connected to a computer, the programmer picked up the virtual balls and began practicing juggling. The programmer created a new artificial world in which the balls moved downward in slow motion, thus altering physics to suit his needs. This gave him more time to react accurately; however, each of his tosses and catches needed to be accurate since the computer responded to the force and release angle of each throw. The better the programmer juggled, the faster he allowed the virtual balls to move, until the speed matched reality. Eventually, the programmer removed the virtual equipment and began juggling real balls. In addition, virtual reality simulators for golf (Puttre, 1993), skiing (Lerman, 1993), and squash (Johnstone, 1990) have been around since the early 1990s.

Virtual reality is defined as "a computer-generated 3-D experience in which a user can navigate around, interact with, and be immersed in another world in real time, or at the speed of life" (Briggs, 2002, p. 35). A variety of instructional materials (diagrams, models, textbooks, videos, software, laserdiscs) have augmented physical education instruction in grades K-12, and now virtual reality is another type of instructional material that holds promise for the future of physical education. Virtual reality offers (1) greater student learning in relation to the national standards (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 1995), (2) an increase in student motivation for learning, and (3) fewer student accidents in the learning environment. Although the research is not definitive, virtual reality appears to be an ideal training medium (Haggerty, 1999; Weiss & Jessel, 1998). Based on years of learning studies, Norman (1993) noted that the motivation to learn may be more important than other cognitive variables. A person needs only to look at the entertainment industry and at places like DisneyQuest to see how successful they are at getting adolescents to participate in activities.

Although many of the virtual-reality-based systems are too expensive for most schools, they are available today. These systems typically address motor skill development (standard 1 of the national standards) and participation in physical activity and fitness-related exercises (standards 3 and 4). The remainder of this article will profile these virtual reality systems, organized by the type of sport or physical activity.


Cyber Bike. This is a standard mountain bike that has been modified to allow real-world motion of the wheel (using optical sensors) and steering in order to determine the speed and direction of movement in the virtual world (Frost, 1999).

Team Sports

Shut-Out Hockey. The user is the goaltender and has to defend the net against "virtual" attackers in pass-and-shoot scenarios (Vincent, n.d.).

Full-court Slam. The user actually plays a one-on-one basketball game against a "virtual opponent" (Vincent, n.d.).

Virtual Volleyball. The user's image is placed on a virtual volleyball court where he or she can play against a virtual robot named Spike or against a real person whose image is also projected onto the court (Vincent, n. …