How Much of What We Learn in Virtual Reality Transfers to Real-World Navigation?

Past studies suggest that learning a spatial environment by navigating on a desktop computer can lead to significant acquisition of spatial knowledge, although typically less than navigating in the real world. Exactly how this might differ when learning in immersive virtual interfaces that offer a rich set of multisensory cues remains to be fully explored. In this study, participants learned a campus building environment by navigating (1) the real-world version, (2) an immersive version involving an omnidirectional treadmill and head-mounted display, or (3) a version navigated on a desktop computer with a mouse and a keyboard. Participants first navigated the building in one of the three different interfaces and, afterward, navigated the real-world building to assess information transfer. To determine how well they learned the spatial layout, we measured path length, visitation errors, and pointing errors. Both virtual conditions resulted in significant learning and transfer to the real world, suggesting their efficacy in mimicking some aspects of real-world navigation. Overall, real-world navigation outperformed both immersive and desktop navigation, effects particularly pronounced early in learning. This was also suggested in a second experiment involving transfer from the real world to immersive virtual reality (VR). Analysis of effect sizes of going from virtual conditions to the real world suggested a slight advantage for immersive VR compared to desktop in terms of transfer, although at the cost of increased likelihood of dropout. Our findings suggest that virtual navigation results in significant learning, regardless of the interface, with immersive VR providing some advantage when transferring to the real world.