'Being in' a virtual environment : the relationshipe [i.e. relationship] between the experience of presence and spatial abilities : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Psychology at Massey University
Current theories within the discipline of psychology suggest that a number of factors influence the experience of presence in virtual environments (VEs). Such factors include, among other things, the quality and degree of sensory stimulation offered by the VE, the degree of realism of the material presented to the user, personal interests of the user, and characteristics of the user such as willingness to suspend disbelief and spatial ability. Spatial ability is hypothesized to influence the degree of presence experienced in a VE because spatial ability is related to the construction of spatial situational models of VEs (Vorderer et al. 2003; 2004). It is also related to users' ability to navigate the VE. The purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between the sense of presence experienced in VEs. users' spatial abilities, and performance on a virtual maze task. It was hypothesized that males would outperform females on mental rotation tasks, and therefore also feel more present in the VE than females. In addition, increased mental rotation ability was hypothesized to improve performance on the virtual maze task. Fifty participants (28 female) completed several tasks used to assess spatial ability, experience of presence, and performance in a VE consisting of a First-person perspective (FPP) virtual maze environment. Spatial abilities were assessed using a redrawn version of the Vandenberg and Kuse Mental Rotation Test (MRT-A), the Object-Location Memory test (Silverman & Eals, 1992), and by asking participants about their use of mental maps. The results provided some support for the hypothesis that the experience of presence in VEs, and users' performance in VEs. is related to the spatial ability of the user. A significant gender difference on the mental rotation task and on the use of mental maps to aid navigation was observed however, males did not feel significantly more present in the VE than females in the present study. Nevertheless, males performed somewhat better than females on the virtual maze task. These findings are discussed in light of participants' previous experience with playing digital games, and recommendations for future research are provided.