Kids, Virtual Reality & Research
[P.S. This post is quite text-heavy and does not contain any graphical analysis or other images because of security and privacy restrictions associated with the research study.]
I have been working on a Virtual Reality research project under the guidance of Dr. Jakki Bailey and her Ph.D. student Isabella Schloss. The focus of the research is to study the use of Virtual Reality as an interactive learning environment for kids of age range 5 - 9-year-old. To give you a quick overview, the study required the kids to wear a Virtual Reality headset (namely Oculus Rift) and interact with 3 different characters placed inside a virtual room. Experiments were done in an isolated room with enough space for the participant to roam around freely. Only one kid would be in the virtual world at a time, and in addition to the 2 researchers and the participant, only the participant's guardian (one) was allowed in the room as a silent spectator. We used a Visual Display Monitor to project the virtual experience in real-time, and the session was audio and video recorded with the consent from the participants and their guardians. We had 28 kids participate in the study.
There were 3 characters in the virtual room - a giraffe, Grover from Sesame Street, and a person. The height of these characters was drawn in scale with the average height of 5-9-year olds. The characters would stand in place and move about in their spot. While the giraffe and Grover, looked the same in each experiment, the person character was designed to resemble the participant in terms of their color of skin and hair. There wasn't a gender attributed to the person character, however, they were made to look more feminine or masculine based on the appearance of the participant. The movements of the characters were restricted to head and neck movements, batting eyelids, opening, and closing of their mouth.
Virtual Room vs Real Room
Each participant started at a fixed spot in the room. Once the child had put the headset on, he/she was given a moment to look around the room and then spot 3 balls of different colors lying around. It was interesting to see that most of the kids that came in were too excited to look around the room and notice that the virtual room was a replica of the real room they were actually standing in. However, many of them noticed the similarities between the two rooms later during the experiment or at the end of the experiment. Some of them quoted "Oh, it looked just like this room except that table over there ..." and then went on to point out the differences they observed.
I vividly remember a girl, who was the first of the many kids to take a while to look around the virtual room once the headset was put on, and duly noted the similarities and differences. Her mother was in the room too with her, sitting in a corner filling out on the survey on the desktop. When during the experience, the girl could not find her mother in the virtual room, she started navigating towards the spot (her mother was at in reality) in the virtual room serving direction from her memory. It was interesting to see the girl inch step by step to her mother holding an arm out to touch her.
Blue Ball, Red Ball, and Yellow Ball
The first thing that the kids would see in the room were 3 balls - blue, red, and yellow in color. It was out of these balls that the characters emerged (when the researcher would press a key). This moment was usually characterized by giggles, "Whoa!!", "WOW!!!" and similar expressions. Some kids found it weird that the characters emerged from the balls. One of them asked (before the characters emerged) what did the balls do and why are they lying around the room. The other was curious as to why were the characters coming out of them. I particularly found it odd that most of the kids did not try to approach the balls and play with them. There were 2 kids (5 and 6-year-old) who immediately ran to the balls, after putting the HMD on, and tried to grab them, lift them up from the ground, kick them around and kept doing it till they were asked and escorted by the researcher back to the starting spot.
Walking up to a Character
Once the characters were out of the ball, the kid could choose to walk up to any of the characters and get as close to them as they want. Given the choice was from a small lot of 3, most of the kids didn't have any difficulty choosing which character they wanted to walk up to first. Some kids did take a few seconds to decide. However, all this mulling and decision seemed to happen only before walking up to the first character. Post that, it seemed like the kids already knew which character they wanted to walk up to next.
Talking about how close kids went to a certain character is a totally different discussion altogether. Most kids went really close to the characters, especially the giraffe, so much so that they would be going in and out of the characters in the virtual world. Some kids stayed away alike from all the characters with their hands clasped upfront. These kids were not particularly handsy with the characters and did not try to reach out, touch, and pet the characters, unlike most other kids. A 9-year old boy who participated in the experience early on and had a good understanding of real vs virtual world hardly approached any character at all. Contrastingly, some kids went so close that they would stay inside of the characters' bodies and answer questions. A kid was very excited and while inside one of the characters said that he now has a body. Often, to save the kid from accidentally running into walls, the researcher would stand in front of them and ask questions. Kids who in the virtual world tracked the sound source and associated its position to that of the character remarked if the researcher was the character.
Out of the three characters, it would not be entirely wrong to say that Giraffe was the most loved one, and most kids were creeped out by Grover. With the giraffe, the kids wanted to touch it and pet it. Many of them said that the inside of the giraffe's mouth was "gross". A little girl thought that the giraffe bit her. Kids were also quick to notice that the giraffe was not as tall as a giraffe usually is. There were kids who had never seen a giraffe before and mentioned that it was "cool" seeing one in VR. Two kids noticed that the giraffe didn't have a shadow and used this as reasoning to establish that it was not real.
Most of the kids found Grover creepy and scary. A kid who had watched Sesame Street before associated the emotion of "anger" and "grumpy" with the Grover in the VR world. A few kids (2-3) tried to punch Grover and tried opening his mouth. The remarks on Grover would mainly be focussed upon the color of its fur and its giant nose.
The person character resembled the physical appearance of the participant in terms of hair and skin color. This was noticed by a number of kids who remarked that "he/she looks like me". The person character's rainbow shoes were an instant hit between the kids. I recall tying shoelaces of a kid during the experience to prevent him from falling. Seconds later, the kid turns around goes to the person character, and tried to tie the character's shoelaces.
Interacting with the Characters
When it came to interacting with the characters, Giraffe and Grover take the cake. It is difficult to pinpoint specifics of what made these characters an immediate hit or why the person character somehow missed the mark, there are certain features that made the kids stay longer with these characters. For the giraffe, the insides of its mouth received the most mentions. Most of the kids wanted to pet it. Kids were also fascinated by the fact that the giraffe would move its head to look straight at the kid. I remember 5 kids (3 out of the 5 being siblings) mentioning how they had never seen a Giraffe before and it was certainly "cool", "good" to see one in VR.
Grover, despite being creepy, lured the kids' attention with his disproportionately huge pinkish-red round nose and its blue fur. It's worth noticing that kids did not just prefer spending time with the character they loved, but also with the one that creeped them out. Many kids (mostly younger boys of the age 5-7) preferred kicking and slapping Grover, all the while expecting it to react and retaliate. A 5-year old kept yelling "Come on Grover, fight me!"
As far as the person character is concerned, the kids were usually pleasant and more well behaved around them, mostly looking at them and their rainbow shoes. 2 (or maybe 3) kids pointed out that the character resembled themselves, and one kid mentioned that meeting the person character felt like "meeting a friend and friends are very special to him".
When asked if the characters could hear them speak, 75% of the kids did a live demonstration by shouting "Helloooo! Can you hear me?", and then pointing out the fact that they didn't receive a response. The kid who mentioned how special friends are to him also did a little impromptu dance to please the person character.
The experiment culminated in a post-test questionnaire between the participant and the researcher. The first leg of the questionnaire is designed to get a sense of any emotional distress or simulator sickness the kid might be experiencing as a result of the experiment, and the second leg consisted of feedback questions.
5 out of the 28 kids did not complete the experiment and stopped before walking up to the second or the third character. The reasons being - they were tired, they did not want to be a part of the experiment anymore, and that they were not feeling too well. One of these kids immediately sat down on the couch after getting out of the headset and asked for water, all the while mentioning that he is going to have "nightmares" about the characters. Another 5-year old kid who did complete the experiment and seemed to be very excited and hyperactive in the VR, looked very drowsy and tired once the experiment was over. Only a handful of kids mentioned having a "little bit" of headache and "a little bit" pain in the eyes.
The kids seemed to rush through the feedback part of the questionnaire, and only some of them had something more than "nothing" to say when asked what would they change about the experiment design. Common feedback comments included: allowing the kids to choose which characters they wanted to see in the experiment, including Superheroes (Marvel and DC) as characters, making the characters more interactive, etc.