Research: Why Interaction in Virtual Reality Matters

Interaction of all sorts is pervasive in the physical world (Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013), perhaps even central to our existence. We interact with other people, with other living beings, with objects, with information – we can even say that we interact with our (and other people’s) thoughts and ideas. If we want virtual reality to be as real an experience and place as possible, a logical conclusion is that interaction should play an important role in virtual reality as well (Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013). Interaction in VR can take place between the learner and the system, between several learners (and the teacher), and between learners and virtual objects (Zhang et al., 2019).

The effect of interaction on language learning

Whether we use VR for socializing, gaming, simulations, role-playing, teaching or learning, the latest technology translates our physical interactions into interactions in the virtual realm (Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013) – thus linking our physical bodies with our virtual representation or avatar and the virtual environment, so that we feel ’embodied’ in the virtual environment. The stronger this link is, the more do we feel immersed in the place and the experience, which gives us a feeling of being ‘present’ – being in that place, in that moment, and experiencing what is happening in the virtual world as real as in the physical world, which is why we react with real emotions (Gomez, 2020, Nelson et al., 2020) to whatever happens in the virtual world. This is why learning experiences in virtual reality can be so effective – we remember experiences much better than any knowledge learned from books or lectures. It has long been established that immersion in the target language and so situated, active, and experiential learning is powerful for language learning. This is why virtual reality is so suited to language learning (Lan, 2020). Consequently, we must make the best use of this key feature of interactivity (Wigham et al., 2018) when planning learning experiences for our language students.

Interaction is so central to virtual reality experiences, that some definitions of virtual reality include the term. Bonner and Reinders (2018, p.34) define VR as “motion and information technologies that enable[…] the creation of entirely digital environments […], in which users interact with information and other users”. For Lloyd, Rogerson, & Stead, virtual reality is “an immersive computer-enabled technology that replicates an environment and allows a simulation of the user to be present and interact in that environment.” (2017, p.222 in Ciekanski et al., 2020, p.88). For Ciekanski et al. (2020) and Zhang et al. (2019), interactivity – which they define as the relationship between a human and a computer – is one of the main affordances of VR. Wigham et al. (2018, p.154) even suggest that interaction is the most ‘salient’ feature of virtual reality. They list some types of interaction in a virtual world related to language learning and teaching, which I would say are applicable to immersive VR too:

  • multimodal social interactions between participants via verbal and non-verbal modes (such as gestures, movement, proxemics) that are mediated by the VW [Virtual World] environment and its communication channels;
  • avatar interactions with the virtual environment that allow for the learner not only to interact through the environment but also to become part of that environment and interact with its spatial elements;
  • interactions with linguistic and cultural content mediated by the target language, the other participants, as well as the learning design and the VW environment and its tools. (Wigham et al, 2018, p. 155)

Interaction with objects (create, grab, move, modify, turn around, etc.) can result in better learning (Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013)For example, in a study by Legault et al. (2019), the learners said that being able to move objects helped them in learning the L2 vocabulary. One reason for this is that interactivity leads to higher motivation and engagement, which in a study by Tai et al. (2020), combined with immediate feedback, improved adolescent EFL learners’ vocabulary learning and retention. A physical classroom based study by Andrä et al. (2020) showed that using self-performed gestures or using pictures equally increased vocabulary retention for several months. This confirms the effectiveness of TPR, but TPR in the classroom is generally very limited and is therefore mostly used at lower levels (A1-A2). With VR, you can take TPR to a new level as you are not limited to the constraints of physical reality. Not only can you integrate more gestures, you can actually physically engage with the types of actions and objects that we might describe in the classroom by saying “imagine” or “try to remember a time when”, such as walking into a shop, taking items you want to buy  from the shelf and paying with your credit card at the cash register,  further reinforcing the communicative connection between action and utterance. Finally, in a study by Berns et al. (2013) that combined competitive, game-like elements and a virtual environment with interaction between learners, objects and the environment, beginner learners’ vocabulary, reading, writing and pronunciation skills improved. These are just some examples from studies on the effect of interactivity in VR on language learning.

Clearly interaction is important, but is all interaction good? What type of interactions are conducive to language learning? When or where should they happen? How much of it? If interaction is so powerful, is the rule ‘the more the better? When it comes to teaching and planning for VR, these practical questions are critical for achieving the right balance for successful VR learning. In my next article, I’ll investigate these questions as we continue to explore the use of virtual reality interactions in English language teaching. 

You can read part two of this article here

See also the important role that interaction plays in defining how immersive a VR experience is.


Andrä, C., Mathias, B., Schwager, A., Macedonia, M., & von Kriegstein, K. (2020). Learning Foreign Language Vocabulary with Gestures and Pictures Enhances Vocabulary Memory for Several Months Post-Learning in Eight-Year-Old School Children. Educational Psychology Review32(3), 815–850. 

Berns, A., Gonzalez-Pardo, A., & Camacho, D. (2013). Game-like language learning in 3-D virtual environments. Computers & Education60(1), 210–220.

Bonner, E., & Reinders, H. (2018). Augmented And Virtual Reality In The Language Classroom: Practical Ideas. Teaching English with Technology, 18, 33-53.

Cai, Y., Tay, Ch. T. and Ngo B.K. (2013). Introduction to 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning. In Cai (Ed) 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning. Springer Singapore.

Ciekanski, M., Kalyaniwala, C., Molle, N., & Privas-Bréauté, V. (2020). Real And Perceived Affordances Of Immersive Virtual Environments In A Language Teacher-Training Context: Effects On The Design Of Learning Tasks. Revista Docência e Cibercultura4(3), 83–111. 

Gomez L.I. (2020) Immersive Virtual Reality for Learning Experiences. In: Burgos D. (eds) Radical Solutions and eLearning. Lecture Notes in Educational Technology. Springer, Singapore.

Lan, Y. J. (2020). Immersion, interaction and experience-oriented learning: Bringing virtual reality into FL learning. Language Learning & Technology24(1), 1–15. 

Legault, J., Zhao, J., Chi, Y.-A., Chen, W., Klippel, A., & Li, P. (2019). Immersive Virtual Reality as an Effective Tool for Second Language Vocabulary Learning. 34.

Nelson, K. M., Anggraini, E., & Schlüter, A. (2020). Virtual reality as a tool for environmental conservation and fundraising. PLOS ONE15(4), e0223631.

Tzu-Yu Tai, Howard Hao-Jan Chen & Graeme Todd (2020) The impact of a virtual reality app on adolescent EFL learners’ vocabulary learning, Computer Assisted Language Learning, DOI: 10.1080/09588221.2020.1752735

Wigham, C. R., Panichi, L., Nocchi, S., & Sadler, R. (2018). Interactions for language learning in and around virtual worlds. ReCALL30(2), 153–160.

(Originally published on the Immerse blog.)