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Individual differences in virtual reality: Are spatial presence and spatial ability linked?


One aim of virtual reality technology is to immerse the user in a digital environment that is distinct from physical reality. Feeling spatially located in this digital environment is central to the experience and is more formally known as spatial presence. Experiences of spatial presence differ between individuals; prominent theories assume that these differences may, in part, be explained by differences in more general spatial abilities. Whilst there is some support for this claim with desktop systems, there is currently no direct empirical evidence to support this with more immersive technologies such as head-mounted displays (HMDs). In this study, participants completed three different measures of spatial ability before experiencing two virtual environments. These measures included a self-report of visuospatial imagery; the mental rotations test; and a test of topographical memory. After completing the measures, participants briefly experienced a virtual city and a virtual train ride through a HMD. The user’s head movements were tracked, and visual displays were updated to give the sense of a full 360° environment. After each experience, the participants reported how present they felt and the extent to which they had a mental model of the environment. Self-reports of imagery were positively correlated with reports of spatial presence, consistent with the previous literature. However, spatial presence was not related to performance on either of the more objective tests. Whilst this provides confirmatory evidence that self-reports of imagery can predict presence, it is still unclear which more basic spatial abilities, if any, could underlie this relationship.

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We would like to thank Charlotte Elwell for all her technical support throughout the study, and we would like to thank all the participants for their time and willingness to participate.

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Correspondence to Matthew Coxon.

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Coxon, M., Kelly, N. & Page, S. Individual differences in virtual reality: Are spatial presence and spatial ability linked?. Virtual Reality 20, 203–212 (2016).

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  • Presence
  • Spatial presence
  • Immersive virtual reality
  • Head-mounted display
  • Spatial cognition
  • Cognition