A virtual reality eLearning experience has the potential to do far more than engage learners: By immersing learners in an experience, virtual reality, or VR, can literally change the way they see a situation. With the potential to transform learners’ perceptions, VR could utterly transform the way some types of training are conducted.

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University is exploring just how VR affects people’s attitudes and behavior—and for how long after the experience those changes stick. This has implications for many kinds of eLearning, ranging from skills drills to exercises that combat bias, raise awareness of harassing or marginalizing behavior, and promote diversity.

How VR works

A virtual world can be created using 360-degree video; this allows learners to examine a digital environment that looks exactly like a real place. The virtual world can also be completely computer-generated; the more detailed and the more lifelike the environment, the costlier it is to create.

However, once a digital environment is created, that environment can be used for many different VR experiences. And according to Tobin Asher, lab manager at the VHIL, the environment and avatars do not have to be completely realistic to have the immersive effect. An advantage of using computer-generated virtual worlds is that learners—or, rather, their avatars—can move around and interact with those worlds, and with items and other avatars in them. When viewing a “virtual world” in 360-degree video, the learner can observe but not interact, Asher said.

VR headsets are getting smaller and lighter with each new iteration of technology, but the age of unencumbered VR is not yet here. To immerse themselves in the VR experience, learners have to wear the gear. But the difference between an interactive experience and an immersive experience is clear the moment a learner dons the VR headset. Upon entering the virtual world, learners will find that barriers, including gravity, vanish; anything is possible.

When done well, inhabiting a virtual world creates “presence,” a feeling of existing within that environment. In the virtual world, the learner becomes an avatar. An avatar is a digital representation of the person; it can take any shape. The avatar moves in response to the person’s movement. As technological advances improve the tracking and rendering of a person within the virtual environment—tracking traces the person’s movements in the real world, and rendering moves the avatar within the virtual world to reflect those movements—the feeling of presence grows stronger. According to Asher, it takes about four minutes of inhabiting an avatar and interacting in the virtual world before the brain makes a switch—and the learner actually believes that she is the avatar.

While inhabiting the virtual world, a learner’s avatar can interact with other avatars and agents in that environment, making team training feasible. An agent is an avatar that is controlled by a computer rather than being responsive to a person’s actions.

Perspective taking, embodiment, and eLearning

Researchers at the VHIL and elsewhere are finding that immersive experiences have a far more powerful—and lasting—impact on attitudes and behavior than other media experiences, whether those involve reading text, watching ordinary video, or taking part in interactive exercises or simulations. VHIL researchers are examining whether VR can enhance soft skills, such as empathy, or influence or change behavior, such as planning for the future or helping others.

VHIL studies have examined a variety of situations, including: scenarios that could engender empathy for older people or people with disabilities, participants’ willingness to help another person, and the effect of “experiencing” racial or sexual harassment. The evidence is mounting that immersive experiences do feel real; thus the lab’s studies have implications for the future of eLearning, whether honing physical skills or enhancing soft skills.

NFL coaches, college athletic teams, and others use immersive VR experiences to drill skills and build muscle memory. The US Army’s Dismounted Soldier Training System allows troops to train on any type of battlefield or scenario; groups of soldiers can train together to prepare for battle. VR simulations can replace training for events that are impossible to re-create, and it can reduce the need for training exercises that are expensive, dangerous, or both. Repetitive practice of physical skills, such as football plays, improves response time and performance; doing these drills in VR reduces the costs and injury risks associated with more frequent actual practice.

But the potential goes far beyond building better athletes and soldiers. The NFL is also using VR to work on diversity training within the organization, though no results are yet available. Other possibilities for enhancing “soft skills” using VR applications include:

  • Embodying another. To work on empathy or participate in harassment training, learners could experience sexual harassment or prejudice by “becoming” members of another race, sex, or both. A learner’s avatar can then experience harassing comments and behaviors. Because of the immersive quality of the experience, the learner’s brain believes that the experience is real; the learner feels as if he or she actually experienced this treatment.
  • Perspective taking. Learners who participated in immersive experiences where they felt what it would be like to be colorblind, homeless, or elderly showed greater willingness, following the experience, to assist people who actually were colorblind, homeless, or elderly. Researchers compared VR participants’ behavior with that of participants in more conventional perspective-taking studies, where they were asked to imagine having the condition or read descriptions of individuals’ lives under those conditions. An immersive experience of schizophrenia, including visual and auditory hallucinations, was more successful in influencing participants’ attitudes toward individuals with schizophrenia than thinking about and imagining what schizophrenia would be like.
  • Public speaking practice. Employees’ avatars can practice public speaking in front of a room full of avatars. If an employee is especially phobic, the initial avatars can be very non-lifelike; they can also be distracted, looking at virtual phones, for example, and not making eye contact with the speaker. As the learner practices and becomes more confident, the avatars could look and behave more like actual human listeners, the size of the audience can increase, and the audience can even interact with the speaker. 
  • Reflexive empathy. Immersive experiences can even influence learners’ behavior on their own behalf. Participants whose avatars “became” older versions of themselves made better decisions about saving for retirement and other long-term planning than participants who merely thought about their future selves.

Possible side effects

The effects on learners’ behavior are not always positive. A 2009 study found that embodiment in a different-race avatar could activate stereotypes and in fact “encourages stereotype activation to the point that it overwhelms any positive effects of perspective taking.” On the other hand, a 2013 study by Tabitha Peck, et al, where participants spent more time in the embodied condition, found that “embodiment of light-skinned individuals in a dark-skinned virtual body at least temporarily reduces their implicit bias against people who are coded as out-group on the basis of the color of the skin.” 

Researchers Susan Persky and Jim Blascovich found that playing violent video games in an immersive VR environment translates to more violent attitudes and behavior than playing similarly violent games in a more conventional, non-immersive environment (see References). Strong “presence” appears to mean a stronger identification with the avatar and his or her actions. The benefits of this identification in sports practice or military training are obvious; the trainees become more proficient at their tasks. But the potential negative effects of identification with a violent or aggressive avatar that could occur from repeated immersion in a violent game are troubling. Persky and Blascovich also found that participants in the immersive game exhibited a cardiovascular response similar to that of a person under threat—that is, their physiological reaction was as if they were actually under threat, an effect not seen in players of a conventional computer game.

False memories

A defining feature of immersive experiences is that they trick participants’ brains into believing that the experiences are real. This is both a strength and a potential weakness. The “realness” is what can influence participants’ behavior changes—greater empathy leads to increased willingness to aid others; a deeper understanding of how racism or sexual harassment feels can change explicit racism, even if it does not change underlying bias.

But immersive experiences might also create “false memories.” While preschool children have been found to create false memories when exposed to many varieties of prompting, such as being asked leading questions or being shown manipulated photos, elementary school (and older) children are less susceptible to these cues. Participating in an immersive VR experience that depicts an avatar resembling the child, however, is more likely than most other types of prompting to trigger false memories of having participated in the activity “in the real world” in children as old as six or seven. 

VHIL researchers found that both preschool and elementary-age children were likely to create false memories when asked to imagine having participated in the events and when they viewed a video of a VR simulation using an avatar that resembled the child. However, the researchers point out that imagining an event requires that the child apply cognitive energy to creating the images; the immersive VR event was completely controlled by a third party.

Questions remain on long-term effectiveness

None of these studies followed up with participants over long periods of time; the VHIL is currently conducting a 10-week longitudinal study to begin examining whether changes in attitude or behavior are “sticky.” The results of longer-term studies will be key determinants for organizations weighing the investment in VR-based diversity training. If the changes are found to be positive and long-lasting—or at least, to have more effect than current training approaches—embodiment and perspective taking through VR may well become the new standard for some soft skills and diversity training.


Ahn, Sun Joo (Grace), Amanda Minh Tran Le, and Jeremy Bailenson. “The Effect of Embodied Experiences on Self-Other Merging, Attitude, and Helping Behavior.” Media Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 1. February 2013.

Bymer, Loren. “DSTS: First immersive virtual training system fielded.” US Army. 1 August 2012.

Felnhofer, Anna, Oswald D. Kothgassner, Nathalie Hauk, Leon Beutl, Helmut Hlavacs, and Ilse Kryspin-Exner. “Physical and social presence in collaborative virtual environments: Exploring age and gender differences with respect to empathy.” Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 31. February 2014.

Groom, Victoria, Jeremy Bailenson, and Clifford Nass. “The influence of racial embodiment on racial bias in immersive virtual environments.” Social Influence, Vol. 4, No. 3. June 2009.

Peck, Tabitha C., Sofia Seinfeld, Salvatore M. Aglioti, and Mel Slater. “Putting Yourself in the Skin of a Black Avatar Reduces Implicit Racial Bias.” Consciousness and Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 3. September 2013.

Persky, Susan, and Jim Blascovich. “Immersive Virtual Environments Versus Traditional Platforms: Effects of Violent and Nonviolent Video Game Play.” Media Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 1. 2007.

Segovia, Kathryn Y., and Jeremy N. Bailenson. “Virtually True: Children’s Acquisition of False Memories in Virtual Reality.” Media Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 4. 2009.