HumaniVR presents its work at “NEW le@rning”

“NEW le@rning” is a collection of lectures on ‘best practices’ in the application of digital tools for innovative teaching and learning at the University of Hildesheim.

On October 27th 2021, Karsten was invited to give an overview of past, current, and future activities of HumaniVR, particularly concerning language practice in Social VR tandems.

We discussed our recently designed “Hildesheim Tandem Garden” (see image) as one of the environments we are currently using for that purpose, followed by a lively and highly enjoyable discussion.

The presentation was videorecorded and is available on request (in German).

“Hildesheim Tandem Garden” screenshot

Pupils of “Gymnasium Athenaeum” research VR as a tool for learning

In the school year 2021/22, HumaniVR cooperates with the “Gymnasium Athenaeum” in Stade, Lower Saxony, to examine and develop the potentials of Virtual Reality for teaching and learning in high schools.

In a seminar called “Language, Learning, and Technology”, 12th-graders have the opportunity to experience and test the capabilities of VR hardware and apps to help them and their peers learn about language, culture, history, science, nature, and new forms of art (to name only a few of the possibilities). Now, it will be their task to design and execute small studies and experiments with suitable research questions. They will critically and constructively assess the usefulness of VR as a tool for innovative teaching, and actively participate in the creation of the classroom of the future .

HumaniVR will accompany these experiments, counsel and advise – and hopes to learn a lot from members of the first generation of potential “virtual natives”.

Thank you, “Athe”-pupils, for your active participation and enthusiasm so far. It is lots of fun to work with you! Thanks also to their teacher Mrs. Engbers and the principal Mr. Niestroj for making this possible.

Innovating University Education with VR: University of Hildesheim wins bid to extend its range of digital learning tools

Congratulations to the University of Hildesheim for acquiring external funding directed at “Innovating University Education through Digitalization” worth more than 3 million euros!

Starting today, 01 August 2021, the university will have the opportunity to heavily bolster its digital teaching and learning formats and break new grounds in three different strands, subsumed under the title “Digital C@MPUS-le@rning”. One of these strands revolves around the implementation of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality on a larger scale in various subjects, ranging from chemistry labs to teacher training modules (“VIRTUAL le@rning”). The HumaniVR team has been an active participant in making this happen, and will continue to do so: Karsten Senkbeil will coordinate the efforts of the “VIRTUAL le@rning” team, and Nicola Hoppe will be in charge of further developing foreign language teaching programmes in VR.

This success really has been a team effort. So thank you to everyone who has contributed to the “Digital C@MPUS le@rning” bid! Thanks to Vice President Jürgen Sander and Birgit Oelker for believing in the opportunities of Virtual Reality and for having HumaniVR on board. And in particular, thanks to the “VIRTUAL le@rning” team surrounding Anne-Elisabeth Roßa, Markus Herrmann, and Jan Hinrichs.

There is plenty to do – and now there is actually some money and time to do it. HumaniVR is very much looking forward to being part of the “Digital C@MPUS”!

HumaniVR at IPra ’21

Timo Ahlers and Karsten Senkbeil jointly contributed a paper to the 17th International Pragmatics Conference (IPra) in Winterthur (taking place online), speaking on

“Verbal and Bodily Origo Constructions in Social Virtual Reality Tandem Interactions.”

within a panel with the topic “Attention”. We discussed our current work on SVR methodologies for linguists, eye-tracking, our application of SVR for language learning, and our work on theories of presence and origo.

The presentation has been videorecorded. We can provide access to the file on request.


We have just published a report with inside perspectives on HumaniVR’s agenda and work in progress. Its aim is to give those interested in our methodology and current applications a detailed academic look at how we work, including references and relevant literature (in English).

It is available open access here.

Cite it like this:

Senkbeil, Karsten. 2021. Developing Methodology and Applications for
Virtual Reality in the Humanities. Stiftung Universität Hildesheim.

A word on hardware

As researchers of and with VR hardware, we have been asked which head-mounted display (HMD) is actually “the best” by people interested in buying one for themselves or their office, lab, or school.

Well, that is not that simple to say.

At HumaniVR, we have relied on HTC’s Vive and Vive Pro for much of our work. It produces video and audio of the highest quality, and head- and controller-tracking work flawlessly. It supports Steam VR as the default platform to manage and use software. Also on the plus side: Pupil Labs offers mobile eye-tracking plug-ins for the Vive Pro, which help us monitor the pupils of our test subjects and find out what exactly they are paying attention to.

The new generation, HTC’s Vive Pro Eye, has eye-tracking capabilities already built-in, which is a great help for our upcoming research.

A minor caveat: the Vive Pro is only as powerful as the computer that it is connected to, particularly its GPU. We have relied on powerful gaming laptops (to stay mobile) from the Omen series of HP. These laptops, however, make the whole endeavor much more expensive than stand-alone VR solutions, obviously.

Also, the Vive Pro series continues to work with a cable, tethering the HMD (and thus the head of the user) to the computer. This leads to less than perfect mobility, occasionally. We believe that every Vive user has stumbled over the cable at least once.

For less inhibited mobility, we will work with Oculus Quest 2 HMDs in the near future. These are stand-alone VR sets, which offer the same level of resolution and immersion as the Vive Pro, while the Quest 2 is wireless, lighter, cheaper, and easier to transport.

The big downside of Oculus Quest 2: it is a disaster in terms of data privacy (see here). Among other things, Facebook/Oculus is in trouble with the German authorities over that exact issue, and consequently, the Quest 2 is currently not being sold in Germany.

Of course, we need to (and do) take this into account from a research ethics perspective.

That is to say: the question which HMD is “the best” (and potentially worth getting yourself) has the rather unsatifying answer: it depends…

“Why are you a man? Am I a man, too?”

If uttered in real life (IRL), these two questions would appear either very silly, almost nonsensical – or highly philosophical, let’s say for example in a gender-theoretical, poetic stage performance. Either way, asking the reason why about someone’s gender, or asking about what your own gender in fact is, is certainly not a common thing to do.

In Virtual Reality (VR) though, we have recorded these two sentences in a rather natural, and in fact very sensible context:

In one of our early pilot studies (courtesy of “Hololingo!”, see our publication here), our test subjects met each other in a VR world through ‘dummy accounts’, that is: random avatars which the users did not choose or customize themselves. For no particular reason, one of these avatars was – per default – bald and heavily bearded, so: clearly readable as male. The student commanding this avatar, however, was female (S-L2), as was her interlocutor (S-L1). When they first saw each other as avatars, S-L1’s reaction to this irritating, and rather funny situation was this: “Warum bist du ein Mann? Bin ich auch ein Mann? / Why are you a man? Am I a man, too?” … a perfectly understandable pair of questions, in that particular VR context. (The answer to the second question was: no. The second avatar – not visible in this picture – looked rather gender-less.)

What’s the academic take on this anecdote?

VR provides us with an extraordinary degree of freedom in terms of what type of identity we would like to perform. While our test subjects could not, normally users make choices in terms of the gender, ethnicity, height, body shape, “race” (as in: non-human fantasy races, aliens, robots, …), clothing, accessories, etc of their “extended Selves” that are visible to others in Social VR. And there is no ‘law’ that the gender of your Self in VR needs to align with your gender IRL.

This is nothing new: “virtual crossdressing” in MMORPGs or Social Media, for example, is a common and well-researched phenomenon.

In VR however, the degree of immersion and the “sense of embodiment” that VR users experience, compared to 2D, screen-based digital experiences, expands the meaning of these choices: you are not playing a character that has a different gender / ethnicity / … than your actual Self. You are that character in that particular space and social interaction.

In our example here, the initially experienced ‘gender incongruence’ was not a big deal after all: both students laughed when they found out about their avatars – it was funny to hear an audibly female voice coming from a heavily bearded, bald guy – and then quickly dropped the subject and went along exploring the VR world. But in other contexts, our VR avatar’s gender may be a very big deal indeed.

What we have observed so far offers inroads for research at the intersection of (virtual) embodied experience, gender performativity, and the social construction of gender and behavioural norms. HumaniVR continues its research on this subject.
We will continue to post results here.

Using technology to learn languages – what can we improve?

Using modern technology and software to learn languages is nothing new. Many language learners today use apps on their smartphones for vocabulary training and other exercises, browse the internet to find interesting contents in their target language, etc. They do so in their free time, outside organized language classes or courses in school or university.

What exactly do they want from their software? What is it that they get?

Our study with language learners from all over the world (see: Publication in ZIF) has shown: most software / app users hope to primarily improve their spoken language skills in the target language, and at the same time, many (approx. 25%) claim that their speaking/listening skills lag behind their writing/reading skills (while only 3% think it is the other way around).

Unfortunately, speaking is the competence that very few existing language apps actually support and foster: training vocabulary, grammar, reading, also listening comprehension … those are the activities, that language learning apps (and videos etc.) can address. But when you hope to practice speaking, apps and Youtube videos neither listen, nor answer.

Not surprisingly, many of those who learn languages with apps and software are somewhat frustrated. They believe that the software solutions they use are less effective than traditional language classes with their teachers, and much less effective than their favorite activity: language tandems (ibid.) (that is: teams of two, in which both aim to learn the native language of the other).

At HumaniVR, we pick it up from there: we know that learning languages in tandems and/or larger groups works great, that hanging out in VR together is fun, and you don’t even need to travel. So let us create, test, and use virtual 3D spaces that provide opportunities to interact, challenges to be faced, riddles to be solved, and “adventures” to be had together in a multilingual group. One of the people in such a VR group may even be a teacher – but not necessarily. ‘Digital-game-based language learning’ (DGBLL) (ibid.) is highly motivating, and it works best in teams.

So ultimately, we will need to use technology – such as VR – to connect people with people, instead of people with an AI.

Publication in “Zeitschrift für Interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht ZIF” [Journal for Intercultural Language Education]

HumaniVR’s Karsten Senkbeil and Timo Ahlers belong to the team of authors who contributed to the ZIF’s October issue of 2020.

How do language tandems interact in Social Virtual Reality (SVR)? In this pilot study, we have empirically analyzed the spoken conversations of Spanish-German teams who were immersed in a collaborative VR adventure, demanding skillful spatial and communicative interaction. Our results demonstrate how SVR can foster the acquisition and ad-hoc usage of spoken foreign language competences in an immersive, motivating, practical, and fun way.

Thanks to our colleagues Milica Lazović and Kathrin Schweiger for this great collaborative effort.

Read the article here:

Ahlers, Timo / Lazović, Milica / Schweiger, Kathrin / Senkbeil, Karsten (2020): Tandemlernen in Social-Virtual-Reality: Immersiv-spielebasierter DaF-Erwerb von mündlichen Sprachkompetenzen. In: Zeitschrift für Interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht 25: 2, 237–269.