Immersive environments are digitally mediated learning environments designed to engage users in an artificially created, make-believe “world.” Immersive environments may take on a broad range of forms, with affordances for varying degrees of sensory immersion and awareness of the user’s physical self or the presence of others. Types of immersive environments extend from massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs; e.g., World of Warcraft) and multiuser online virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life) to surround-screen projection-based virtual reality environments (e.g., Cave Automatic Virtual Environments, CAVE).
In MMORPGs, users log into the game from a computer or a game console and assume the role of a character to accomplish the goals of the game – often collaborating and competing with other distributed players who log in from their own computers. Multiuser virtual worlds are similar to MMORPGs in the sense that each user accesses the immersive environment through their own individual computer, acts through an avatar, and interacts with other distributed users who log into the same environment. However, virtual worlds tend not to have game mechanics or goals built into the environment. Rather, users decide for themselves what they wish to accomplish in the virtual world. In the case of both MMORPGs and virtual worlds, the perception of immersion is characterized by cognitive immersion rather than spatial-motor or sensory immersion.
With surround-screen, projection-based virtual reality environments, users are presented with multiple-linked representations, shown on large displays that surround them (e.g., projected on several walls or into the corner of a room). Audio elements may be used to augment users’ experiences, enhancing the “immersive” aspect. Characterized by sensory immersion, CAVE environments have been used for training purposes, such as submarine operation and flight simulation.
Immersive Environments for Science Education
For purposes of science education, immersive environments provide students with opportunities to visualize settings that are not otherwise accessible to them and to conduct inquiry within such an environment. In River City, a multiuser online virtual environment, students are immersed in a nineteenth-century city, where they collaborate in distributed teams of three or four to discover why people are getting sick and how they can resolve disease transmission issues (Dede 2009). Using River City, students learn scientific knowledge and inquiry skills.
Taken together, immersive learning environments such as River City (i.e., a game-like environment where students are cognitively engaged) and EvoRoom (a room-sized simulation in which students are immersed physically and cognitively) offer a promising avenue for science education. New technologies, including projectors, touch screens, and computer vision and sensing (e.g., Microsoft Kinect), are making it easier to develop powerful new ways for students to interact with materials and peers in a variety of learning environments.