Science Learning in 3D immersive VE

This line of research focuses on exploring the strengths and limitations of virtual reality as a medium for learning scientific concepts (i.e., their potential to convey abstract scientific concepts). We investigate how various aspects of virtual realities (multisensory immersion, 3-D representation, shifting among various frames of reference
), when applied to scientific models, might facilitate students’ understanding of abstract phenomena and help in displacing intuitive misconceptions with more accurate mental models.  We also study the role of the interaction between virtual reality’s features and other factors (i.e., learners’ individual characteristics, domain-specific knowledge and interaction experience) in shaping the learning process and learning outcomes.

In particular, we investigate learning of the relative motion concept, using Immersive Immersive 3D Virtual Environment
simulations’ Relative Motion setting, which
explores an innovative instructional technology platform as a new media for learning concepts for introductory physics curriculum for K-12 and higher education. This approach supports the learning process by providing a unique possibility for students to interact with and explore their hypotheses in VR-generated worlds, thus making it possible for students to “experience” what they are learning in an entirely new way. The module includes educationally powerful dynamic visual representations (highly “realistic” objects, visualization of concepts such as forces and velocities, visualization of processes and things invisible to the naked eye, focusing on core-concepts [e.g. highlighting, magnifying, removing irrelevant aspects], a real-time graphing tool, etc.), and allows for real-time interaction. Students can move and look around, point and gesture, experience motion, etc. in a simulation, and these “first hand” experiences can significantly contribute to the sense of “presence” students can feel in a virtual environment.

Visualization Processes in Physics

In this line of research, we investigate how visualization may facilitate learning scientific concepts and solving physics problems. In particular, we investigate how individual differences in visualization ability affect learning sciences and processing abstract scientific representations. Our research (Kozhevnikov, Hegarty, & Mayer, 2002; Kozhevnikov, & Thornton, 2006) has shown that spatial visualization ability predicts success at solving mechanics problems, and relates to specialization in science (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova, & Becker, 2010). Furthermore, we showed that high- and low-spatial visualizers generate qualitatively different mental images and use different strategies when solving mechanics problems. The analysis of eye-fixation data (Kozhevnikov, Motes, & Hegarty, 2007), revealed that low-spatial ability participants spent a greater amount of time studying the overall shape of graphs compared to studying the graph axes, whereas high-spatial ability participants spent more time studying the axes than the overall shape of the graph.

In addition, our preliminary results (Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov, submitted) from qualitative interviews with members of different professions about their visualization processes while solving professional tasks revealed that scientists report visualization experiences unique from those of other professionals, which can be characterized as schematic, sequential, easily transformed and controlled.

3D Visualization in Immersive Virtual Environments

Our research on 3D visualization in immersive virtual environments includes the following directions:

We are interested in the contribution of immersion to spatial processing and compare subjects’ performance in non-immersive and immersive 2D vs. 3D environments. Our 3D virtual environment
provides a sensation of immersivity and allowing the participant to move freely while his/her motion is tracked, and interact with the virtual world using a specially designed actuator device.


Recently, more realistic 3D displays have been designed as new, more ecologically valid alternatives to conventional 2D visual displays. However, research has thus far provided inconsistent evidence regarding their contribution to visual-spatial image encoding and transformation. The majority of experimental studies on 3D visual-spatial processing have been conducted using traditional 2D displays. Our research suggests that immersivity is a critical feature of 3D virtual environments for facilitating visual processing and the training of visual ability.


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The research in the Mental Imagery lab focuses on investigating visualization processes and individual differences in mental imagery in cognitive style. In particular, we examine how individual differences in visualization ability affect more complex activities, such as spatial navigation, learning and problem solving in mathematics, science and art. We also explore ways to train visual-object and visual-spatial imagery skills and design three-dimensional immersive virtual environments that can accommodate individual differences and learning styles.

The Mental Imagery and Human-Computer Interaction lab research focuses in five main directions:

Our approach integrates qualitative and quantitative behavioral research methods, as well as neuroimaging techniques (EEG, fMRI). Furthermore, we develop and validate assessment and training paradigms for visualization ability, using  3D immersive virtual reality.

Based on behavioral and neuroscience evidence, we formulated a theoretical framework of individual differences in visual imagery, and suggested that visualization ability is not a single undifferentiated construct, but rather is divided into two main dimensions: object and spatial, and that the spatial dimension is further divided into allocentric and egocentric dimensions. All these visualization abilities underlie success at different complex, real-world tasks, and predict specialization in different professional and academic domains.