This is part 2 of an occasional series about using virtual reality as a learning tool. See part 1.

In 2001, Rockstar games released Grand Theft Auto iii. This was the first instalment of the series to be rendered in full 3D, allowing you to truly immerse yourself in the games environment. Named Liberty City, it was a sprawling metropolis of around 6 square miles, which you were free to explore at your own pace in between, or even in lieu of, missions of the game.

The attention to detail was incredible. Wander up random backstreets you’d find torn posters or other minor details which existed nowhere else in the game. Jump into a car and you could choose from 10 radio stations to listen to, each with hours of spoof DJ content and real licensed music.

It felt like a real place. A living, breathing city.

Ten years later, technology had advanced sufficiently, to the point that games which required high-end games consoles in 2001 could now comfortably run on the average smart phone. Rockstar repackaged it and released it as a 10th anniversary edition for Android and iOS.

Returning to Liberty City for the first time in a decade, I felt the same sense of nostalgia you might expect when revisiting the location of a bygone holiday, years later. The more I wandered round the streets, the more a sense of familiarity strengthened and returned to me as specific events from the game came flooding back.

It seems obvious then, that there is equal worth using real locations and entirely invented spaces as spatial memory learning aids.

A really exciting prospect when you consider that there are a generation of children coming up who think nothing of constructing their own virtual worlds in Minecraft (over 100 million registered users). They could just as easily be constructing their own mind palaces.

There is an in-between area to consider though. Places that exist in the real world which you can revisit virtually at any time. Many museums and art galleries across the world have now had their interiors mapped by the Google Street View cameras as part Googles Arts and Culture initiative, meaning you can now roam their corridors without ever setting foot inside.

I’ve used a few of these locations for learning Dutch. The technique I’m using (adapted to suit me from the technique in this book) is to pick 26 locations and associate one with each letter of the alphabet. I then work through the alphabet. Each day, I pick the next letter in sequence, add at least 10 words, come up with memorable images for each then map them onto the location. So if I maintain the pace, I’ll be adding ~300 new words to my Dutch vocabulary each month.

And it is only vocabulary of course. Grammar rules don’t lend themselves so easily to this technique, but I’m about a week in to the process at this stage and very impressed with how easily I’m retaining words, some of which I’ve previously struggled for months to remember.

For the locations I’m using, I’ve chosen specific places I have visited in the Netherlands, in the hope that the emotional response will further enhance retention, but really anywhere could be used. Some of the places I can still recall easily. With others, my memories of the finer details may be slightly sketchier. For these, I’ve been enhancing memories with a combination of holiday photos and videos taken at the time, as well as Street View where available.

What would be really interesting though is the ability to map visuals, notes and other details on top of these 3d explorable worlds. This is currently not possible with Google maps, but I’ll be aiming to try building something like this in A-Frame at some point using 360 photos and videos, with an interactive layer placed over the top.

A-Frame is an attempt by Mozilla to build the open standards which will add a VR layer to HTML. It’s early days but I’ve done some experiments with navigating through a real building using a sequence of looped 360 degree videos, as well as some very early work in building virtual locations from scratch.

As you might expect, there’s a huge learning curve from building web pages to building complete 3D virtual environments, but they’ve made it impressively easy to get started.

More on that in the next part.

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