Effectiveness of a Semi-Immersive Virtual Environment in Understanding Human-Environment Interactions

Cartography and Geographic Information Science, Volume 36, Number 4, October 2009 , pp. 367-384(18)

Edsall, Robert M.; Larson, Kelli L.

“Virtual environments and related technology generate interest and excitement. Their power is strengthened with empirical evidence of their utility for scientific inquiry and decision-making. This paper reports on a study to evaluate the effectiveness of virtual environment (VE) presentations about issues typical of those facing decision makers in a rapidly growing urban area. The presentations consisted of the explanation and visualization of two phenomena—groundwater overdraft and the urban heat island. The virtual environment utilized in this study, Arizona State University’s Decision Theater, is purported to help policy makers and the larger community visualize complex model output and make decisions about scientific issues. To begin to assess these claims, we carried out a user test during which a group of research participants were given two surveys, one before the presentations, to determine a priori understanding, and a second afterwards, with the same questions. This methodology allowed us to carry out within-subjects tests concerning contrasting phenomena, in order to assess two primary hypotheses: (1) knowledge and perceptions of environmental phenomena will change after the viewing, and (2) understanding will vary based on the phenomena in the presentations. Our analysis shows at least some level of support for the hypotheses, with evidence that the virtual environment positively influenced understanding, and that there may be important differences in insight generation based on characteristics of the phenomena represented. Finally, we outline critical areas of future research to further knowledge about the impact of visual VE settings on understanding and decision making.”