Effectiveness of a Semi-Immersive Virtual Environment in Understanding Human-Environment Interactions

Article excerpt

Introduction

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.

Background

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). …