VR and memory – new study shows memory gains

In our work, we’re often asked for evidence on how VR impacts learning. And with virtual reality developing so rapidly, there’s been little in the way of hard evidence. But in a new study from the University of Maryland on VR and memory, researchers discovered that students have better recall when working in immersive environments instead of flat computer screens.

The few other studies available haven’t tackled the issue of VR and memory or learning. An early project with high school students was (thankfully) very broad-based and provided fascinating observations, but not the data an emerging field needs.

The UMD study used the concept of a “memory palace,” where participants recall objects by placing them in an imaginary physical location. Half the group did it in VR while the other half worked on a flat computer screen.

A little detour through the Memory Palace

One of the earliest concepts of a Memory Palace goes back to the Italian philosopher and humanist Giulio Camillo Delminio. His book, Idea del Theatro (1550), described an inverted theater where the spectator and actors swap their locations.

It almost sounds like an early conceptual version of virtual reality. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but at least Antonin Artaud would have approved. 

In this inverted theater,

. . . the spectator (the mnemonist) is on the stage (proscenium) and he observes the actors (the images of the thing that he wants to memorize) on the stalls. It is unclear whether he actually was able to build a prototype of this kind of theater; what is important is the idea, since a real theatre of memory is not “real”, it is only envisaged.  (Wall Street International)

Memory Palace, perhaps an early understanding of VR and Memory
An image of Giulio “Delminio” Camillo’s amazing “Theater of Memory.”

Interesting enough, some of our VR interfaces seem to copy Camillo’s design for their opening menus. The UMD study recreated the Memory Palace concept by having the participants place objects both inside an ornate palace and on an external view of a medieval village.

VR and Memory

Here is the description of the study conducted by Amitabh Varshney, senior research scientist Catherine Plaisant, and Eric Krokos who is a doctoral student and lead author on the paper.

For the study, the UMD researchers recruited 40 volunteers — mostly UMD students unfamiliar with virtual reality. The researchers split the participants into two groups: one viewed information first via a VR head-mounted display and then on a desktop; the other did the opposite.

Both groups received printouts of well-known faces — including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Monroe — and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed the participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting — Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was positioned in the center of the room . . . .

. . . .Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The research participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed. (Science Daily)

The research results demonstrated a solid 8.8% increase in recall, with more than 40% of the study’s participants scoring 10% or higher increase while using VR. Of course, longtime readers know that we see augmented and virtual reality providing much more than statistical gains in learning. It will transform the way we learn and the design of our institutions. But it’s still helpful to see some short-term evidence and the data may help get some projects off the ground. 

UMD Study on VR and Memory
Virtual memory palace with the photos and the recall phase on the right.

As Amitabh Varshney observes in studying VR and memory,

. . . it opens the door to further studies that look at the impact of VR-based training modules at all levels — from elementary school children learning astronomy to trauma residents acquiring the latest knowledge in lifesaving procedures. We believe the future of education and innovation will benefit greatly from the use of these new visual technologies.

We’re looking forward to future studies in this area.