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What is an "Immersive Environment"?

1. Introduction

1.1 Conceptualizing and Defining Immersive Environments

1.1 What is an "Immersive Environment?"

Steven Warburton, in his 2009 article Second Life in higher education: Assessing the potential for and the barriers to deploying virtual worlds in learning and teaching, provides this extended definition in his account of the development of virtual ("immersive") environments:

The story of virtual worlds is one that cannot be separated from technological change. As we witness increasing maturity and convergence in broadband, wireless computing,video and audio technologies, we see virtual immersive environments becoming more practical and useable...Virtual worlds have existed in some form since the early 1980s, but their absolute definition remains contested. This reflects the general nature of a term that draws on multiple writings of the virtual and the difficulties in attempting to fix descriptions in an area that is undergoing persistent technological development. The numerous contextual descriptions that have appeared, from the perspectives of writers, academics, industry professionals and the media, have further complicated agreement on a common understanding of virtual worlds. Bell (2008) has approached this problem by suggesting a combined definition based on the work of Bartle (2004), Castronova
(2004) and Koster (2004), drawing the work together using key terms that relate to: synchronicity, persistence, network of people, avatar representation and facilitation of the experience by networked computers. But perhaps the most satisfying and simplest insight comes from Schroeder (1996, 2008) who has consistently argued that virtual environments and virtual reality technologies should be defined as:"A computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a sense of being present in an environment other than the one they are actually in, and to interact with that environment(Schroeder, 1996, p. 25)

In other words, a virtual world provides an experience set within a technological environment that gives the user a strong sense of being there. The multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) of today share common features that reflect their roots in the gaming worlds of multi-user dungeons and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), made more popular in recent times through titles such as NeverWinter Nights and World of Warcraft, both based on the Dungeons and Dragons genre of role-playing game. Virtual worlds may appear in different forms yet they possess a number of recurrent features that include:

  • persistence of the in-world environment
  • a shared space allowing multiple users to participate simultaneously
  • virtual embodiment in the form of an avatar (a personisable 3-D representation of the self)
  • interactions that occur between users and objects in a 3-D environment
  • an immediacy of action such that interactions occur in real time
  • similarities to the real world such as topography, movement and physics that provide the illusion of being there.(Smart, Cascio & Paffendof, 2007

For the entire article,see:Warburton.pdf

While this is an excellent account of how digital technologies have enabled us to alter,re-create or replicate our

William Blake. Europe a Prophecy Copy K, 1821 (Fitzwilliam Museum)

physical or mental "environments" to the point where the term "virtual reality" no longer seems nearly as pretentious as it was in the early 1980's, where VR meant wearing clunky helmets and goggles tightly tethered to a (frequently-crashing) mainframe computer, it doesn't address the question of how or why we became interested in immersive environments in the first place. Or, to put it another way, which came first, the computer or the immersive environment – is digital technology the necessary or just sufficient cause for the conceptualization of immersive environments

The definition(s) proposed abocve would seem to preclude the inclusion of any human artefact that preceded the digital age. On the other hand, Marshall McLuhan – the patron saint of Wired Magazine - suggested that all "man-made" artefacts are communications media to the extent that they are "the extensions of man," (i.e., extensions of our senses); and that all electronic communications media can be seen as evolutions of some previous technology even as they obsolece or replace them. We must agree with McLuhan to some extent: after all, role-playing games and multi-user games – often used as examples of immersive environments – pre-existed their computer adaptations, even as the scope of their "immersiveness" was increased exponentially by their incorporation into MMO's and social networking platforms.

For instance, our William Blake example points out two crucial aspects of immersive environments; the opening stanza of his illuminated text runs as follows:

Five windows light the cavern'd Man; thro' one he breathes the air;
Thro' one, hears music of the spheres; thro' one, the eternal vine
Flourishes, that he may recieve the grapes; thro' one can look.
And see small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth;
Thro' one, himself pass out what time he please, but he will not;
For stolen joys are sweet, & bread eaten in secret pleasant.

How does this 18th-century work relate to computer-mediated immersive environments? First, the opening lines provide a nice poetic metaphor on how we experience reality through our five senses. Compare this to the development of multimedia technolgies: The "Windows" interface began by adding a layer of graphic richness to what had been a rudimentary typographic display on a primitive monochromatic CRT display. This was soon replaced by richer graphics that dramatically improved visual interaction. Ezra Pound's assertion that "artists are the antennae of the race" is aptly demonstrated by our Blake example: Blake's concept of his "illuminated manuscripts" was brought about by his dissatisfaction with just the printed word: and so he created a hybrid of poetry and painting, whereby simple text (think DOS)could have a new layer of meaning added to it by graphic "illumination" of the text (think Windows and similar interfaces). Similarly, the development of sophisticated immersive environments can also be viewed in terms of the gradual improvement of the technology's ability to simultaneously engage us in a multisensory interactive environment.

As a next step in this pedagogical approach, can we think of other immersive environments which pre-existed the computer age, and suggest ways in which computer-based IE's have enhanced older ones? Here's one to begin: a brief tour of the Mustag cave environment in Nepal...

1.2 Immersive Environments as Metaphors

(stay tuned)

"An immersive digital environment is an artificial, interactive, computer-created scene or "world" within which a user can immerse themselves. Immersive digital environments could be thought of as synonymous with Virtual Reality, but without the implication that actual "reality" is being simulated. An immersive digital environment could be a model of reality, but it could also be a complete fantasy user interface or abstraction, as long as the user of the environment is immersed within it. The definition of immersion is wide and variable, but here it is assumed to mean simply that the user feels like they are part of the simulated 'universe'". From Wikipedia "Immersive Digital Environments"

Immersive environments are simulations or representations of either a real life or alternative reality environment where the goal is the best possible replication of the represented environment for the purposes of training, knowledge building, entertainment or all of the above. Given the recent rate of technological advancement in the field of 3D graphics and other simulation environment most people tend to associate immersive environments with high technology, but this is not necessarily always the case.

Modern immersive environments were pioneered by the airlines industry, who used them for simulating plane flights for pilots training purposes. There are a number of advantages that immersive environments offer over traditional training methods:

  • Safety: Immersive environments offer a safe alternative to training situations that may involve danger to participants, ie, military training or aircraft operation.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Immersive environments are cost-effective as they reduce the necessity of operating actual equipments as well as transport and housing costs that are involved in non-local training facilities.
  • Variety: Immersive environments can replicate situations that are not easily replicable in real-life training situations.

The non-training uses of immersive environments are seen in computer games that simulate a world where the player is represented by an on-screen avatar/incarnation playing a specific role. The rapidly increasing performance of 3D computer graphics have enabled these games to come to life with richer graphics and sound that allow for more expansive and detailed environment which go further towards deepening the immersion in the environment.

Examples of immersive environments arranged in terms of increasing technological complexity include:

  • Kendo: Japanese Martial arts with wooden swords and face masks
  • 3D Movie goggles: Relatively 'low-tech' equipment used to affect the dimensionality of the cinematic environment.
  • Video games (XBox 360, PS3, Wii): Fairly sophisticated graphical and motion technology used to simulate a variety of environments ranging from locales as diverse as race courses, tennis courts and areas and times of historical significance (ie. WW2).
  • Aircraft simulators and other industrial grade simulators: Extremely accurate simulation using high-end equipment and technology, primarily used for training purposes.

As we can observe in the above, the range of immersive environments can be placed on a spectrum of increasing technological sophistication. Although high technology does not guarantee an accurate replication of the actual environment it is often shows strong correlation with increased immersion on part of the user; The more Tiger Woods looks like his real-life counterpart due to the complexity of the 3D graphics, the better the suspension of disbelief on part of the user.

Spectrum of Immersive Environments

The following graph is our representation of the spectrum of immersive environments based on their fidelity and the amount of "suspension of disbelief" that participants must overcome to accept the experience as being "real". Fidelity is ultimately the measure of how real an immersive environment/experience is to the participant(s).

As designers/users of technology for education purposes, this notion of fidelity drives much of the process in the design of educational materials, and ultimately is hotly debated and contested when the subject of funding a project is broached.

Immersive environments can also be categorized as follows:




Virtual Worlds

SmallWorlds, Second Life
Croquet, Project Wonderland

Non-goal oriented (can be modified to include missions, games, and goal-oriented communities), Open-source, multi-user, collaborative
virtual worlds come in lots of flavors, but they all share four characteristics:
1. Persistence: A virtual world exists whether or not a user is logged in.
2. Multiuser: must have the potential for population.
3. Avatars: A user created agent that performs actions in that world.
4. Wide Area Network: have the potential to be global and large.
(Robbins-Bell, 2008)

Video Games

Fable II, The Sims

Goal-oriented, (can be) multi-user, learning specific to game rule set, collaborative

Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG, MMO)

Zon, World of Warcraft

Goal-oriented, emphasize multiplayer gameplay, players cannot "finish" MMOGs in the typical sense of single-player games

Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs)

River City, Quest Atlantis

Goal-oriented, specific learning objectives aimed to transfer across domains, collaborative

Virtual/Augmented Reality

SmartBoard, Wii, SnowWorlds, Virtual Iraq, Alien Contact! Haptic technology - Flight Simulators

Goal-oriented, sensory/bodily interaction

Pedagogical Goals and Approaches

  • To create an awareness and understanding of immersive technology
  • To create a discussion of immersive environment implementation and possibilities and opportunities
  • To provide an opportunity for classmates to play in immersive environments
  • Initiate discussion on the pros and cons of immersive environments as a knowledge building collaborative community
  • Provide a groundwork of essential concepts and terminology

We also looked at three different avenues of learning and knowledge sharing as applied to immersive environments:

1. Situated Learning


  • in a specific social and physical context/ situation
  • with learners (agents) possessing specific intentions
  • in response to specific affordances of the learning environment

Juxtapose situated learning with decontextualized (traditional) learning:

  • Well-defined problems in school versus ill-defined problems outside
  • Content structured by theoretical systems in school versus structured by problems outside
  • Individual cognition in school versus shared cognition outside
  • Pure mentation in school versus tool manipulation outside
  • Generalized learning in school versus situation-specific competencies outside (Renkl, 2001)

The Approach
Create a situational context for learning that strongly resembles possible application situations in order to assure that the learning experiences foster 'real-life' problem solvingSecond Language Learning
"The most effective way to learn a language is to participate in a community in which the target language is used to communicate in a real context. In such an environment, the language learners are left with no place to hide. They are forced and encouraged to think, speak, and write in the target language. In other words, they become immersed in an input-rich, natural, and meaningful context in which the target language can be acquired spontaneously." (Shih & Yang, 2008)

Language is not decontextualized but intertwined with cultural practices, perspectives, and products.
Example 1. German language and culture in VR

  • focus on enhancing student's awareness of target culture along with linguistic goals
  • created a virtual world based loosely on Salzburg, Austria
  • three settings: computer lab, projected in classroom, CAVE (computer automated visual environment)
  • game is available for download

Example 2. Chinese language and culture in an MMOG

  • Zon is "a multiplayer, online learning environment designed to teach Chinese language and culture through gameplay"
  • Players are motivated not only by their intrinsic desireto learn more about Chinese language and culture, but also the ability to interact with engaging story-driven plot lines, interesting characters, and fellow players
  • Players learn from non-player characters (NPCs), responsive game agents, and other players
  • Goal: "to fare well and advance socially and economically, with players advancing from "tourists" to "residents" and finally to "citizens" of modern China"
  • Screen captures: Log on, Hotel, Store

2. Distributed Cognition

  • Distributed cognition is a theoretical approach that is concerned with the interactions between
    people, artifacts and both internal and external representations.
  • Rather than focusing exclusively on an individual's internal cognitive processes, that traditional cognitive approaches do, it focuses on the processes that take place in an extended 'cognitive system'.
  • The distributed cognition approach was developed by Hutchins and his colleagues in the mid to late 80s as a new paradigm for conceptualizing cognition.
  • Cognitive systems that consist of more than one individual have properties that differ from the individuals that participate in them. For example, individuals working together on a collaborative task possess different kinds of knowledge and so will engage in interactions that will allow them to pool the various resources to accomplish their tasks (Rogers, 2004).Community Knowledge, Collective Responsibility
  • Contributions to shared, top-level goals of the organization are prized and rewarded as much as individual achievements. Team members produce ideas of value to others and share responsibility for the overall advancement of knowledge in the community (Scardamalia, 2002).

Example 1. Second Life

  • A user-generated 3D environment that comes with relatively easy-to-use building and scripting tools
  • Uses a simple primitive-based 3D modeling tool
  • The scripting language is called LSL ("Linden Scripting Language") which can be used to add autonomous behaviour to these objects
    • An internal, event-driven, C/Java-style language which allows you to control object and avatar behavior, up to and including mini-games and other complex programs.
    • Educational uses in second life
    • Open-Source Museum of Open-Source Art photos 

3. Affective Learning 

Elements of Affective Learning 
*see all here



Awareness, selected attention, willingness to hear


Active participation on the part of the learners
Attends and reacts to a particular phenomenon
Learning outcomes may emphasize compliance, willingness, or satisfaction in responding (motivation)


The worth or value a person attaches to a particular object, phenomenon, or behavior
This ranges from simple acceptance to the more complex state of commitment
Valuing is based on the internalization of a set of specified values, while clues to these values are expressed in the learner's overt behavior and are often identifiable


Organizes values into priorities by contrasting different values, resolving conflicts between them, and creating an unique value system
The emphasis is on comparing, relating, and synthesizing values.

INTERNALIZING VALUES (characterization)

Has a value system that controls their behavior
The behavior is pervasive, consistent, predictable, and most importantly, characteristic of the learner
Instructional objectives are concerned with the student's general patterns of adjustment (personal, social, emotional)


VR reseacher Hunter Hoffman has created a virtual world program to try and distract burn patients from feeling pain as their dressings and bandages are being changed.
Based on the "Gate Theory," that states that psychological processes can interact with the physiological and draw attention away from sensations of pain, or people's perceptions of pain.

"I mean, at some level I knew she was working on me, but I wasn't thinking about it because I was inside that SnowWorld" - Mike Robinson, patient (view BBC article here)

Example 2. Paramedic Training in Second Life
visit article here
"Everything you do has a consequence" -_ James Lafferty, Paramedic student

Transactive Engagement

  The user engages in consequential actions which result in both the user and the world in which he/she is immersed being changed.

  • User experiences a deep sense of immersion in the virtual world both perceptually and conceptually
  • has a legitimate goal and role within that world
  • Self-perceptions can change, and things learned can (hopefully) be transferred and applied to other settings.

With specific focus on educational MUVE's, disciplinary concepts are not learned as abstractions, but are used as tools that have functional value in that world - learning comes through their use and thus learning about concepts becomes a way of seeing, being, or acting upon that world.

Reflections, evaluations and ideas for the future

Immersive technology is a burgeoning environment and both literature and research was limited.  It made for exciting moments in the process of the presentation because it felt like (for the moderators at least) there were no "right" or "wrong" answers. 

References and Resources

Examples of Immersive Environments

Readings and other References

  1. Schroeder, R., Huxor, A., and Smith, A.(2001). Activeworlss: geography and social interaction in virtual reality. Futures, 33 (2001), 569-587. pdf version
  2. Roussos, M., Johnson, A., Moher, T., Leigh, J., Vasilakis, C., Barens, C. () Learning and Building Together in an Immersive Virtual World. pdf version
  3. Dede, C.The Evolution of Constructivist Learning Environments: Immersion in Distributed, Virtual Worlds. To be published in a forthcoming issue of Educational Technology pdf version
  4. Corbit, M. (September/October 2005). Game Worlds for Learning. pdf version
  5. Clarke, J., Dede, C., Ketelhut, D. J., & Nelson, B. (2006). A Design-based Research Strategy to Promote Scalability for Educational Innovations. Educational Technology (46), 3 (May-June), 27-36.  pdf version
  6. Benford, S.,Snowdon, S., Colebourne, A., O'Brien, j., Rodden, T. Informing the Design of Collaborative Virtual Environments pdf version
  7. Browne, A. & Campione, J. (1996).  Psychological Theory and The Design of Innovative Learning Environments:  On Procedures, Principles, and Systems.  (Chapter 13). pdf version
  8. O'Brien, M.G., & Levy, R.M. (2008). Exploration through Virtual Reality: Encounters with the Target Culture. The Canadian Modern Language Review. 64(4), 663-691.
  9. Renkl, A. (2001). Situated Learning: Out of School and in the Classroom. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier Ltd.
  10. Robbins-Bell, S. (2008). Higher Education as Virtual Conversation. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(5).
  11. Rogers, Y. (2004). Distributed Cognition and Communication. An updated introduction to Distributed Cognition. To appear in The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 2nd Edition. PDF version Online:
  12. Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective Cognitive Responsibility for the Advancement of Knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.), Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society, pp. 67-98. Chicago: Open Court. PDF version Online:
  13. Shih, Y.-C., & Yang, M.-T. (2008). A Collaborative Virtual Environment for Situated Language Learning Using VEC3D. Educational Technology & Society, 11 (1), 56-68.
  14. Situated Cognition. Wikipedia.
  15. Wenger, E. (2001). Communities of Practice. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.
  16. Clarke, J., Dede, C., Dieterle, E. (2008).  Emerging Technologies for Collaborative, Mediated, Immersive
    Learning (pp. 901-910).  In International Handbook of Information Technology in Education. Springer Publications. 
  17. Johnson, L.F., & Levine, A.H. Virtual Worlds. Inherently Immersive, Highly Social Learning Spaces. Available online:
  18. Kelton, A.J. (2008)Virtual Worlds? "Outlook Good." EDUCAUSE Review. 43(5) (September/October 2008). Available online :

Additional Resources on Immersive Environments


Design Ideas

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