Interactive Computing Environments Laboratory
University of Illinois at Chicago, M/C 154, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.
In this paper we present an approach for applying virtual reality (VR) to the creation of a family of educational environments for young users. The immersive and interactive attributes of VR technology can be a powerful tool for education, allowing the learner to actively participate in the surrounding environment. Our approach is based on constructionism, where real and synthetic users, motivated by an underlying narrative, build persisting virtual worlds through collaboration. This approach is grounded on well established paradigms in contemporary learning and integrates ideas from such diverse fields as virtual reality, human-computer interaction, CSCW, storytelling, and artificial intelligence. The goal is to build an experiential learning environment that will engage children in authentic activity. Our prototype system explores the above ideas within the CAVE(tm) virtual reality theater.
We present a virtual reality landscape consisting of a family of learning environments for young users, that embodies a set of common principles. In this shared virtual environment, participants interact directly with the world to create story threads. The methods of interaction between the participants and the world are natural, reflecting daily real-world interaction. Our approach is based on constructionism, where real and synthetic users, motivated by an underlying narrative, build persisting virtual worlds through collaboration with other human and simulated agents. In terms of learning environments, this encompasses nearly all the major contemporary dogma: constructionism, collaboration, problem solving, and authentic experiences.
Children's narrative is used by conventional media, such as the storybook or the cinema, to present imaginary worlds. We adopt virtual reality because it expands these traditions by encouraging active participation in the creative process, and thus redefining the relationship between the audience and the work. In this research, it takes on the role of a distributed participatory theater where children at various locations can share the same virtual stage. The children, challenged by the vividness and the sensation of this new space, craft stories by constructing imaginary ecosystems. Simulated agents, which we refer to as genies, co-populate the landscape and encourage a progression of events in a narrative. The child's actions in the space and interactions with the genies determine the general direction of the narrative, without restricting its outcome. These stories have a life beyond the child's short term interaction with the virtual space; they persist, allowing others to experience and further the ongoing narrative. They may also persist in the form of an artifact that records the child's accomplishments.
In the following sections we will explore the various aspects of our approach, as well as describe our prototype implementation that embodies some of these concepts.