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.

“Teaching the teachers” – Adding VR to language education

HumaniVR offers advice and training for language teachers who are interested in using Virtual Reality technology in their classes and beyond (ranging from short, stand-alone presentations to interactive workshops).

So far, we have worked with the Goethe-Institut and trained teachers of “Deutsch als Fremdsprache, DaF” [German as a foreign language] in China within the framework “Raum für DaF spezial – Digitalisierung des Fremdsprachenlernens” [Room for German as a foreign language, special issue: the digitalization of language learning].
Also, we are in close collaboration with teacher training colleges / “Studienseminare” in Lower Saxony.

Currently, we can offer input on “DaF”/ German as a Foreign Language and on English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Feel free to contact us if you are part of an institution that may benefit from it.

We are always looking for ways to extend our range of languages, and to apply and adapt our methods for further languages. Are you a teacher of French, Spanish, … or, in fact, any other language? Join our network of VR teachers and researchers by contacting us!

High-Fiving in VR?

What is the first thing people do, when they meet and speak with a person for the first time? In Western cultures, they introduce themselves, and then shake hands.

(Unless there is a virus pandemic, that is.)

A pilot study by HumaniVR’s Mathis Göcht and Anna Schwanke has shown that students who meet each other for the first time in VR attempt to have their avatars do exactly that: shake hands.

Obviously, it doesn’t really work satisfactorily: the necessary haptic feedback to the inside of the hand hasn’t been developed in current VR controllers yet, so in fact, the avatars’ hands just pass through each other and quiver asynchronously – a most awkward handshake.

In their thesis, Göcht and Schwanke have also observed the attempt of High-Fiving in VR after successfully solving a problem together – a rather standard reaction, but again with unsatifactory results: hands passing through each other, no satisfying “slap” sound, no mild burning at the inside of the hand.

Tl;dr: High-Fiving in VR is no fun at all.

The academic take:

Currently, users’ (beginners’) real-world cultural practices heavily influence their practice in VR and still seem to ‘override’ the knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of the technology.

We will continue to research this “culture-VR-bias” … and see whether the opposite phenomenon (a “VR-culture-bias”) also develops down the road (e.g. with experienced VR-users?).

Göcht and Schwanke’s work is yet to be published. If you are interested in a ‘sneak preview’, you may contact the authors.

“Learning Languages in the Digital Age” – HumaniVR contributes to digital conference in Beijing

In September 2020, Karsten Senkbeil and Timo Ahlers followed an invitation by the Goethe-Institut and the Institut Français in Beijing to speak about Virtual Reality as a tool for language learning at the online conference “Learning Languages in the Digital Age” [Fremdsprachenlernen im Digitalen Zeitalter].

Timo spoke about Digital-game-based language learning (DGBLL) in his talk “Do you speak virtual? Learning in language tandems in Virtual Reality” together with our esteemed colleague Dr. Milica Lazovic.

Karsten presented the status quo of HumaniVR and our current research agenda.

Thank you to the Goethe-Institut and the Institut Français for organizing a remarkable quadrilingual event (English, German, French, Mandarin) and for having us!

Update: The Goethe-Institut uploaded a short video clip summarizing the event to “Tencent Video” (the ‘Chinese Youtube’), with ‘soundbites’ of Timo, Milica, and Karsten [in German].

HumaniVR kicks off.

After months of planning, the interdisciplinary research project entitled “The Humanities in Virtual Reality. Methodenentwicklung und -anwendungspotenziale der Virtual Reality für die Geisteswissenschaften” [in English: Developing methods and applications of Virtual Reality in the Humanities] begins its work.

Thanks to the generous support of Lower Saxony’s Ministry of Science and Culture (MWK Niedersachsen), a team of researchers from two German universities (Hildesheim and Potsdam), joined by international partners, will have the chance to explore the potential impact that Virtual Reality technology will have on our understanding of culture, communication, and learning.

HumaniVR is based on the following working hypothesis and questions:

A. In the future, Virtual Reality – or rather: Realities – will become significant spaces of digital social practice, beyond gaming. Together with other users, we will immerse ourselves in strange and fantastic (or conventional and lifelike) spaces. We will work, play, and interact with each other while using language, our hands, bodies, motion, and digital communicative modes.

-> How will we communicate in VR? Will our language, our behavior — and ultimately our minds — change, once we spend ample time in VR?

-> Will these experiences rearrange our understanding of distance, social contacts, culture and location? Will our VR experiences feedback to our experiences and communicative routines in real life and real spaces?

B. Virtual Reality will become and is currently becoming a significant space for learning: language learning, intercultural learning – and any other subject, in fact.

-> How can we make the best of this new technology for students of languages in school, university, and outside of traditional learning situations, when VR enables us to travel to far-away countries, cultures, and linguistic environments – from our living rooms, using only our cell phones and a cardboard box.