How real is real enough?

How real does a virtual environment need to be for users to feel presence?

This is a question educators have been researching in the attempt to implement virtual spaces to expand the classroom. For those of us old enough to have been playing eight bit video games and text-driven adventures, we already have a good feeling for the answer—not much reality is required.

Quantifying this answer has been my research topic over the last couple years, and Open Wonderland is open road, making it possible to perform structured experimental designs educators and researchers will find most useful.

Two takeaway points:

  • Open Wonderland’s freedom — free as in free speech — allows, and even encourages, users to create worlds and tools that match exactly what is needed. In my case, a controlled experiment that incorporates existing teaching materials.
  • Open Wonderland allows the implementation of nearly any metaphor that can reinforce underlying goals and teaching points, and those metaphors, even if somewhat abstract, raise feelings of presence among participants.

In Taiwan, where I have been an expatriate for a couple decades, my business negotiation class was the focus for an experiment using OWL. Over the past five years, I developed a pen and paper negotiation Role Playing Game (RPG) where groups of students bought and sold simulated products, negotiating details of price, quality, shipping, etc. One big problem was trying to simulate negotiations in a tiny classroom, where getting any privacy was impossible. OWL overcame this problem through virtual space, which I then used to test feelings of presence.

I measured feelings of presence among students in two different virtual environments—one high abstraction and one low abstraction. Rather than produce a realistic environment, the goal was to test a metaphorical environment. For my negotiation class, a key concept is the importance of the negotiation team, keeping core information secret, planning goals, and distributing work, while having access to members of other teams. For my class, I implemented an island metaphor, within OWL, with each team owning its own island and class lectures held in a central classroom location. This became the low abstraction environment in the experiment. If this setting produced a measurable feeling of presence, the benefit would include those feelings as well as the opportunity to use a metaphor in teaching. This setting was compared to a fully abstract environment, where students negotiated and lectures were held in an empty space that only included teaching materials, such as slides.

Low-level abstract virtual space adopted an island metaphor

Low-level abstract space. (Image courtesy Clyde Warden.)

Island metaphor. (Image courtesy Clyde Warden.)

Research results showed students had statistically higher feelings of presence in the island metaphor world compared with the totally abstract world. The RPG paper game was executed, but now with students negotiating inside OWL, alternating between the two environments (low and high abstraction). Even with a small sample size (low statistical power), results were strong. While a difference between an empty world and a non-empty world may be obvious, the important finding is that a metaphor-based world can generate feelings of presence, avoiding the need for a high fidelity simulation. Rather than having offices, desks, and chairs, the island metaphor gave students a lasting picture of a key negotiation concept that they will remember.

High abstract virtual space

Totally abstract space. (Image courtesy Clyde Warden.)


The details of this work were published in the highly ranked research journal Computers & Education (Level of abstraction and feelings of presence in virtual space: Business English negotiation in Open Wonderland, Volume 57, pp. 2126-2134).

To learn more, visit

(Article reprinted with permission from Wonderblog.)'

Clyde Warden

Clyde Warden is a Professor of Chinese Consumer Behavior at the University of Stirling (Singapore) Institute for Retail Studies and at the National Chung Hsing University (in Taiwan). Recently, Warden implemented an Open Wonderland project for a business class in Taiwan.

4 Responses

  1.' Lawrence Pierce says:

    There is research showing that more learning occurs with graphics and text than with text alone, especially for new learners. This, however, does not tell us about the level of realism required. I would suggest that the level of realism requires adjustment depending on the subject matter and the learning goals.

    To describe the operation of a tire pump, a simple diagram would work better than a photorealistic presentation. To simplify complex processes can increase learning. This would apply to a presentation on how a jet engine works or how a complex software application is used. On the other hand, simulations that teach border crossing agent skills, or emergency worker skills, would require a much higher level of realism to include the many subtle, yet important visual and environmental cues that inform decision making. The important quality here though is relevance, as it is also shown through studies that extraneous visuals can inhibit learning.

    All of this certainly supports a careful consideration of what kind of 3D environment to construct when teaching any set of skills.

    Still, virtual worlds are not just information networks they are spaces. This consideration extends beyond only a consideration of learning goals. A brick and mortar school may not need trees, dynamic architectural lines or carpeting in the classrooms for learning. Still, these elements do enhance the personal experience of well-being felt in those spaces and that sense of well-being is a value in its own right. The question is, how much we are willing to pay for that value?

    With sensible planning, virtual worlds can offer an inviting sense of space for very low cost relative to any real world correlate. It is important that such elements do not detract from learning, but a sense of presence is not the same as a sense of place. And without creating a compelling and visually satisfying sense of place, using a virtual world is itself probably unnecessary. As the article points out, other, simpler technologies already provide a sense of presence.

  2. Ener Hax says:

    great question and it boils down to actuall content, not so much on graphics – Habbo Hotel is incredibly engaging and massively popular for 10 years and is only isometric

    Aristotles words (just mere text! a very simple representation of what is real) still ring true and have shaped countless democracies =)

    •' Lawrence Pierce says:

      Even in your example you are emphasizing the visual. Habbo Hotel is very visual and a far cry from the text-only game Microsoft Adventure. Habbo Hotel would not work as a text-only experience, or as a narrative presented without images.

      On the other hand, words can “paint” vivid images in our imagination. So the question, I think, is not the value of images versus content, but more a question of where images originate and what they offer. Whether a story is told in a movie like Avatar where the visuals are the content and presented in high-definition big-screen 3D for us, or told only with words, like Huckleberry Finn, in which I felt like I was traveling with Huck down the Mississippi in my mind’s eye, immersion through a visual sense of space was a huge part of the experience. Images on a screen or images in my mind, either way, visuals were important.

      If there are only words, our imagination works to create images. If there are rich images, we still long for all the other components, but not in spite of the visuals. There is, however, a deep satisfaction in richly visual virtual environments that people seem to respond to viscerally. Just look at all the one-dimensional, yet visually compelling computer games that millions flock to!

      We’ll never know what Aristotle would have thought of our modern virtual worlds, but I bet he would have been fascinated.

  3.' Lawrence Pierce says:

    As an artist as well as a technologist, I’m always looking for the right words in response to the downplay of rich visuals. Often times a false dichotomy is presented between the quality of visual experience and content. I believe that the visual is itself content, along with all the other elements that are involved in an experience: concepts, ideas and information.

    This time, though, I came across a brief story, that shouldn’t have been a part of my life today. That is to say, I was erroneously sent an email, which led me to the superintendent page of the Howell Public School District. It is a soft reminder that the visual has been with humanity as long as there has been humanity and has played in roles that range from survival to sheer ecstasy.

    John Stafford’s book, Victory in Our Schools, contains the story of two men who shared a hospital room. This story has a great message that reflects the mission of Howell Public Schools:

    “Once, two men shared a hospital room. The man in the bed by the door was gravely ill; doctors questioned his hold on life. But the man in the bed by the window was stronger and often passed the time by describing the scene outside. ‘There’s a park,’ he would say, ‘I see children playing.’ Or, ‘Look, the ice cream truck is coming!’ Or, ‘Ah, two young lovers walking hand in hand.’ As the sicker man in the bed by the door grew stronger, he would nod and smile; the vicarious contact with the outside world cheered him.

    After a week the man in the window bed went home and the sicker man moved to the bed near the window. The following morning, as soon as the nurse had opened the curtains, he raised himself and looked out. There, to his surprise, was a parking lot—barren concrete with a few randomly parked cars. No children. No lovers. No park. At first he was furious; how could his friend have misled him? Then disappointed—he had so anticipated the view! But as the hours ticked by he realized what a gift his friend had given him. The images the man had painted reminded him of all that was good about life; they had renewed his sense of hope and possibility. More than the medical care he was receiving, those images had strengthened him.”