Virtual reality is hot topic at the moment. Although it has existed for several decades, rapidly advancing technology has lead to significant improvements in the fidelity of virtual environments. Consequently many companies are claiming that training in virtual environments can improve skills for real-life tasks.
However, is this actually true?
Rob Grey from Arizona State University is an expert in virtual environments (VE). He asked this question in a baseball batting task.
80 male High School baseball players participated in the study. Participants were randomly allocated into 4 training groups:
- Adaptive training in a virtual environment (in addition to regular training). Adaptive training involved the manipulation of pitch parameters (i.e., speed and location) to ensure task difficulty matched the participants skill level. This training was highly variable.
- Extra batting practice in a virtual environment (in addition to regular training). This training aimed to mimic regular training, which typically follows a blocked schedule (hence, pitch parameters do not alter on a pitch-by-pitch basis).
- Extra on-field sessions of real batting practice (in additional to regular training). The extra sessions were identical to the extra practice in a virtual environment (see above).
- A control condition involving no additional training to the players’ regular practice.
The three training groups completed two 45 minute sessions per week for 6 weeks. All participants completed pre- and post-tests of batting skill. These included a batting test in a virtual environment, a real-life batting test, and a pitch recognition test (i.e., judge the type of pitch and whether it was a strike or a ball).
A retention test was also conducted 1 month after the post-test. This involved the same tests as the pre- and post-tests.
The study also assessed participants batting performance during actual competition in the season following the training. Additionally, the study assessed participants’ highest level of competition 5 years after the training.
The key results were:
Pre- to post-test
- The adaptive virtual environment training group significantly improved performance from pre- to post-test for all dependent variables (across all test).
- The extra on-field batting training group improved for 7 of 8 dependent variables.
- The virtual environment batting practice group improved for 3 of 8 dependent variables.
- The control group improved for 2 of 8 dependent variables
Post-test to retention test
- Performance remained the same from post-test to retention test for all groups.
Batting performance during competition
- The adaptive virtual environment training group displayed a significantly higher on-base percentage compared to the other groups. On-base percentage refers to the percentage of bats whereby the players gets on base – the main goal when batting.
Highest level of competition 5 years later
- More participants from the adaptive virtual environment training group played a level of competition higher than High School.
- This was achieved by 8 players from the adaptive virtual environment training group, 3 players from the real batting practice group, 1 player from the virtual environment batting practice group, and 1 player from the control group.
The implications are clear. Virtual reality environments can be used to enhance batting in baseball (and likely other sports too).
It is important to highlight the specific training group that displayed the greatest results – the adaptive training group. This group were exposed to a training program that constantly adapted task difficulty depending on the participants performance. This is obviously extremely difficult to achieve in real life practice as it requires the pitcher to constantly change their speed and location of throwing based on the player’s performance.
Hence, it appears that a benefit of virtual environments is the ability to manipulate training in ways that are otherwise difficult in real-life.
Gray, R. (2017). Transfer of Training from Virtual to Real Baseball Batting. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2183.