Learning Immunology in IVR: A Story of Neutrophils

We created this immersive Virtual Reality (VR) experience with specifically embedded concepts about human immunology to investigate how different levels of interactivity and different storytelling designs in VR could affect a user’s learning experience and knowledge gain. 

Imagine being able to experience a battle between your own immune cells and the pathogens you come into contact with every second from the viewpoint of a single immune cell. You are a foot soldier protecting the body against foreign invaders at all costs. You would view yourself traveling through blood vessels until you sense the invading pathogen and then migrate through tight spaces in tissues until you come into contact with the pathogen and unleash an arsenal of toxic chemicals or “traps” to kill the pathogen. It is an amazing viewpoint and you have more than five thousand of these cells in every droplet of your blood! Without the immune system, humans would die within one day because they are exposed to pathogens everywhere in the environment. However, those incredible immune cells and their fantastic journeys inside human body and battles with pathogens can only be observed under microscopes in lab settings and are not easy to be accessed by common people. Moreover, the complexity of how human immune systems work adds difficulty to the understanding of some important immunology concepts in college biology classrooms.

To visualize what happens in human immune systems in an educational way, we developed an immersive virtual reality (IVR) experience that integrates elements of storytelling, gaming mechanisms, principles of learning sciences and instructional design to promote learning of specific immunology concepts through rich interactions and engaging narratives within a virtual environment. During the experience, a user will be taking on the role of a specific immune cell called neutrophil inside human body and experiencing its migration process from blood vessels to a site of infection in body tissues and killing pathogens there with three different killing mechanisms (phagocytosis, granulation, NETS).  

Study I. Exploring Effects of Interactivity on Learning with Interactive Storytelling in Immersive Virtual Reality

Immersive virtual reality (VR) holds great potential for learning, but it is unclear how VR experiences should be designed to maximize learning potential.  In this study, we explored how the level of interactivity in an educational VR storytelling experience affects a user’s learning gains. We defined interactivity in our application context as the interactive features of a VR experience that support embedded learning concepts through learners’ actions. In particular, interactivity provided by the VR experience should give a learner freedom in navigation, the ability to select virtual objects and apply intended effects, and the ability to access specific learning information in the environment. Based on the proposed definition, we created three versions of our Immunology VR experience with low (system automates as many actions as possible), medium (a combination of system automation and user-controlled actions), and high (as many user-controlled actions as possible) levels of interactivity.

Informed by studies on interactivity and Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) in interactive instructional media research, we hypothesized that a moderate level of interactivity may be the “sweet spot” for learning in immersive VR. We therefore proposed three hypotheses:

1. Level of interactivity will significantly affect a user’s learning gains.

2. Users will achieve the most learning gains in the medium interactivity condition.

3. Increased levels of interactivity will significantly increase a user’s engagement in the learning experience.  

Although data from pre and post-tests showed no significant difference in students’ learning gains due to interactivity level, questionnaire and interview data suggest that interactivity in the experience significantly affects students’ engagement in learning, attention, and focus on learning material. Participants also perceived that they could learn better and more effectively in a VR experience with a higher level of interactivity.

Study II. Exploring Levels of Storytelling on Learning with Interactive Storytelling in Immersive Virtual Reality

(Work-in-Progress) We are currently working on an empirical study that focuses on the investigation of how different levels of storytelling elements (eg. character setup and story structures) affect acquisition and retention of new learning concepts in an interactive storytelling VR experience. Our hypotheses for the study are:

1. Stories with higher levels of character setup and structures will engage the learners more in an educational VR experience.

2. The learners will retain intended learning concepts from the advanced level of story for the longest period of time compared to lower levels of storytelling.

Below is a video on the most recently developed study prototype.


Lei Zhang; Doug A Bowman

Exploring Effects of Interactivity on Learning with Interactive Storytelling in Immersive Virtual Reality Conference

Virtual Worlds and Games for Serious Applications (VS-GAMES), ACM ACM, Vienna, Austria, 2019.

Abstract | BibTeX

Lei Zhang; Doug A Bowman

Enabling immunology learning in virtual reality through storytelling and interactivity Conference

Human-Computer Interaction International (HCII), Springer Springer, Orlando, FL, 2019.

Abstract | Links | BibTeX