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Rules , Roles, and Resources: Strategies to Promote Collaboration in Virtual Reality Contexts


Abstract and Figures

Virtual reality allows individuals to experience and understand the world from new perspectives. Yet, the affordances that make virtual reality a rich and immersive experience can create a challenging context for collaboration. In our Collaborative Learning Environments in Virtual Reality (CLEVR) project, we are exploring ways to foster collaboration between team members in an educational game about biology called Cellverse . Through the background research, design, and pilot testing of this virtual reality game, we have found that rules, roles, and resources are important considerations in creating collaborative virtual environments.
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Rules , Roles, and Resources: Strategies to
Promote Collaboration in Virtual
Reality Contexts
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publication license.
Virtual reality allows individuals to experience and
understand the world from new perspectives. Yet, the
affordances that make virtual reality a rich and
immersive experience can create a challenging context
for collaboration. In our Collaborative Learning
Environments in Virtual Reality (CLEVR) project, we are
exploring ways to foster collaboration between team
members in an educational game about biology called
. Through the background research, design,
and pilot testing of this virtual reality game, we have
found that rules, roles, and resources are important
considerations in creating collaborative virtual
Author Keywords
Collaborative virtual environments; virtual reality; 3D;
serious games; educational simulations; interactive
learning environments.
ACM Classification Keywords
Human-centered computing~Empirical studies in
collaborative and social computing
Virtual reality creates opportunities for individuals to
experience and learn about the world in new ways. The
increased availability and affordability of head mounted
displays (HMD) in VR allows expands the classroom to
include distant locations and situation that are too
dangerous to experience firsthand [2]. Virtual
collaboration between scientists has already been
fruitful in extending knowledge and exploring new ideas
in science [1, 9], and educational VR creates new
pathways for classroom collaboration [6]. While
educational VR shows great potential, there are issues
in creating collaborative VR spaces that need to be
addressed. Immersion in the virtual world may create
boundaries between people [5]. In order to leverage
immersive VR as an effective tool for learning and
player interaction, we need to establish how to best
design effective collaboration within VR environments.
Existing research in collaboration can help guide the
development of VR based collaboration. Research
suggests that successful collaboration in 3D
multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) is linked to
the same recommendations made for collaborative
groups, including continuity of group interaction, and
a combination of individual accountability and
interdependence [8]. Communication is an essential
part of collaboration both in actual and virtual
situations. In a study of group problem solving,
Montoya, Massey & Lockwood found that ease of
communication, strong individual contributions to the
process, and coordination improved group
performance [9]. Park & Seo found that providing
specific tools so that people could give and receive
praise helped improve group identity within groups
compared to groups that did not have the ability to
give praise [11]. In studying groups of people
engaged in six different virtual experiences, Jensen
noted that participants did not have norms for how
to interact with each other [7]. She recommended
using games as a way to create rules for social
interaction and roles for individuals in virtual problem
based activities. These findings imply that, while
challenging, collaboration within the VR environment
may be very effective in building team dynamics
among learners.
1In this article, immersive virtual reality incorporates a head
mounted display such as an Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, or
HTC Vive.
Research into collaboration in 3D immersive VR with
also provides useful guidelines for designers. Greenwald
et al identify two considerations for collaborative virtual
environments - who one can interact with and how one
can interact [4]. Creating space for individuals to work
alone allowed individuals to take responsibility in an
aspect of the project, and benefited the overall result.
In solving puzzles in cross-platform collaborations,
Slater et al found that people who were in HMD VR
were more likely to take a leadership role than when
they solved a problem with the same team of people in
person [12].
Game Description
Within In the Collaborative Learning Environments in
Virtual Reality (CLEVR) project, we are currently
developing an educational game, Cellverse
, that will
help students in high school biology to learn about cell
structure, and the process of transcribing DNA to RNA,
and translating RNA to proteins (the central dogma).
We have used a Design-Based Research methodology
[3] to iteratively create an experience which offers
learners rich, immersive opportunities to investigate
and explore the cell from the inside out.
Working in small teams of two or three, players
examine a living cell or organ from within. Each
individual takes on a complementary role. One
individual serves as an Explorer, entering the cell in VR
to observe cell function and structure. The other
individual serves as a Navigator with a tablet-based
toolkit of disease descriptions, stains, tags, and
measurement devices to gather data and focus the
visualizations in both tablet and VR.
Research Questions
Our review of the existing research suggests that
collaboration in virtual learning environments can be
enhanced with the appropriate level of rules, roles, and
resources. We have two research questions for this part
of the study:
1. How do individuals interact in a collaborative cross
platform experience?
2. What are the appropriate amount of rules, roles, and
resources that can create and strengthen
collaboration among individuals who play the game?
Methods and Analysis
is currently under development, so here we
report on testing of early prototypes. Educators and
other people interested in education piloted the
collaborative part of Cellverse
during an evening
“playtest” of different projects. We will report on two
pairs of participants (4 people in total). We plan to
continue play testing and gathering data this spring.
During the play test, we gathered data through
observations of participants and through interviews
conducted before, during, and after the activity. We
began by explaining the premise and narrative of the
game to our players. The players were then asked a
few basic background questions, then were introduced
to either the VR headset or to the tablet-view user
interface (UI), depending on what role they were going
to play during the user testing experience. They then
worked through the tutorial in order to understand how
to explore and collaborate during the game. After
playing, the players sat down for separate interviews
that recorded their experiences and opinions of the
game. Throughout the activity, we made careful notes
of how and when the partners collaborated.
Preliminary Results
None of the four players had prior experience in VR, so
they spent some time becoming acclimated to the VR
environment. One player asked if they could talk to
each other during the activity. After learning that
talking was permitted, both pairs of participants
communicated throughout the experience. The
Navigator was given a tasklist that included general
information about the game and information about
potential disorders of the cell. Including graphics in the
task list appeared to improve communication between
the group in enabling the Navigator to identify key
parts of the cell with more clarity for disorders that
were augmented with pictures than disorders just
described by text.
Figure 2: Navigator View, showing a beacon (white) through
the cell and dials to rotate the view of the cell
In both sessions, the Navigator took the lead in the
conversation, describing the disease, symptoms, and
where the Explorer should look inside the cell. The
Navigator also placed one or more light beacons in the
cell to help guide the Explorer (see Figure 2). The
beacon was designed as a line that crossed through the
cell rather than a point, with the intention that the
Navigator would use multiple beacons to indicate a
point in the cell. However, the Navigator did not place
multiple beacons in the cell during the experience, and
the Explorer found the beacon challenging to interpret.
During the post interviews, both of the Navigators
stated that they did not need the Explorer to solve the
game challenge. The Explorers expressed an interest in
understanding what information each team member
had available to them in order to create a more
strategic approach to the task.
While the number of play testers reported here is small,
the topics they mentioned align with the existing
literature and with our current hypotheses on
collaboration in virtual environments. Our participants
had limited experience with virtual reality. Similar to
Jensen’s (2017) findings [7], our participants benefited
from clear rules to understand how to interact with
others in this new environment. The players wanted to
know more about the information that their partners
knew so they could envision roles that each participant
could take in the team effort, and wanted more clarity
on how to interact using the tools (such as the beacon),
supporting Greenwald’s (2017) contention that
understanding how to interact with team members is
important [4]. In contrast to the Slater et al (2000)
study, we found that the amount of information
available to the player could be as important to a
leadership role as whether the player was in or out of
VR [12]. We will work on how best to balance
information resources among the players to require
collaboration between the players in our next design
Virtual environments create new ways for individuals to
interact, to learn new concepts, and to actively engage
in the world [6]. Now that these technologies are within
reach of a wider range of learners, we need to
understand how best to create educational experiences
using VR. Our preliminary study of collaboration in an
educational game suggests that rules, roles, and
resources can shape collaboration between participants.
Additional research in this area will help educators and
designers understand how to craft collaborative virtual
experiences for more widespread use.
1. Alexandre Borrel and Denis Fourches. 2017.
RealityConvert: a tool for preparing 3D models of
biochemical structures for augmented and virtual
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2. Matt Dunleavy, Chris Dede, and Rebecca Mitchell.
2009. Affordances and Limitations of Immersive
Participatory Augmented Reality Simulations for
Teaching and Learning. Journal of Science Education
and Technology
18, 1: 7–22.
3. Matthew W Easterday, Daniel Rees Lewis, and
Elizabeth Gerber. 2014. Design-Based Research
Process: Problems, Phases, and Applications.
Proceedings of the International Conference of the
Learning Sciences
1: 317–324.
4. Scott W. Greenwald, Alexander Kulik, André Kunert,
Stephan Beck, Bernd Fröhlich, Sue Cobb, Sarah
Parsons, Nigel Newbutt, Christine Gouveia, Claire
Cook, Anne Snyder, Scott Payne, Jennifer Holland,
Shawn Buessing, Gabriel Fields, Wiley Corning,
Victoria Lee, Lei Xia, and Pattie Maes. 2017.
Technology and Applications for Collaborative
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5. Jan Gugenheimer, Evgeny Stemasov, Julian
Frommel, and Enrico Rukzio. 2017. ShareVR. In
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41, 1: 33–55.
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Dialogue in Virtual Reality. Journal of Problem Based
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