In Brief

In an era where new technologies constantly replace the old, at least one ancient invention, the map, remains unchallenged by the computer age, according to research published in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 9, No. 4).

In a study conducted by Martin J. Farrell, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Manchester, 40 undergraduate students 17 to 25 years old were divided into four groups of 10 that searched for eight balloons in a university building. Prior to entering the building, one group practiced finding the balloons using a virtual environment (VE)--a computer simulation of the building and target balloons. The second group set out to find the balloons after studying a map of the building, and the third group was provided with both the map practice and VE training. The control group attempted to navigate the building with no prior training.

All three trained groups found the balloons more quickly than the untrained control group, but of the trained groups, those who practiced orienteering only on the computer took the longest to complete the course. Students who practiced with the map only fared equally well on the test as those who trained with the map and VE, suggesting that the computer model did not provide additional information.

Additionally, training the students to use the map and VE took almost twice as long as training the map-only group.

"This research shows that more low-tech forms of training spatial behavior are not necessarily inferior to the more expensive, rather high-tech VE set-ups," notes Farrell. "In order to justify the extra expense, [a virtual environment] would need to show itself to be superior to studying a map or a plan. It doesn't do that--at least it doesn't do that yet."

According to Farrell, virtual environments are not commonly used in training today, but he and his colleagues note that past experiments have shown that training in virtual environments can improve the orienteering of people with intermediate navigational expertise. For example, Farrell says, VE could potentially teach engineers to navigate the interior of malfunctioning nuclear reactors, where efficiency is key to survival. Future research could determine ways to select individuals who are likely to benefit from the technology, he notes.