A new study has examined the effects of the virtual reality game “Beat Saber” on cognitive functioning and fine motor skills. The results showed that participants improved their selective attention and observation skills after VR training. In contrast, no changes in cognitive functions were observed after physical training sessions in which participants followed instructions from a video. The study was published in Cognitive Science.
Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment that users can interact with using specialized equipment, such as headsets with motion sensors and controllers. VR is designed to immerse users in a realistic and interactive experience that simulates physical presence in an artificial environment. Virtual reality games leverage this technology to create engaging and immersive gaming experiences. Players can be transported to fantastical worlds, explore new environments, and interact with virtual objects, offering a heightened sense of presence and interactivity compared to traditional video games.
Virtual reality, in general, and specific types of virtual reality games, have been proposed as promising alternatives to traditional physical training in both rehabilitation and sports training. A significant advantage of virtual reality games is their greater accessibility to the general public compared to specialized training facilities. Their interfaces are more intuitive, and the VR devices themselves are often more affordable than traditional specialized training equipment.
In this context, a specific type of VR gaming, known as exergaming, has gained prominence. Exergaming is a form of physical activity that combines exercise with video gaming. It typically involves interactive games that require body movement, offering a more active and engaging approach to fitness. Study author Sidney Grosprêtre and colleagues aimed to examine whether VR exergaming might enhance specific cognitive functions such as observation capacity and attention. They hypothesized that VR exergaming would produce stronger effects than pre-established physical training through videos.
The study participants included 11 young, healthy individuals with an average age of 23 years, of which two were women. Upon agreeing to participate in the study, they also consented not to engage in any unusual physical activities during the study duration. This was necessary to prevent confounding the results with changes stemming from exercises outside the scope of the study.
At the beginning and end of the study, participants completed a series of cognitive tests. These tests included reaction time tests (go/no-go), a trail-making test, a letter cancellation test, a change blindness test (to assess observation capacity), the Stroop test, mental calculus, and an instant recall test (for testing short-term memory). Researchers also assessed participants’ fine motor control skills (a circular Fitts’ task).
Participants underwent two training programs, each consisting of 15-minute training sessions carried out over five consecutive days. The order of the two programs was randomized, with a one-month interval between them.
In one program, participants engaged in physical training using shadow boxing fitness videos (following instructions on the videos). In the second program, participants played the VR game “Beat Saber” in which they had to cut moving cubes with virtual swords held in each hand. Before the training, participants had a familiarization session to assess their tolerance of the VR apparatus and to familiarize themselves with the cognitive tests, minimizing the effects of learning the tests on the results before and after the training.
The results showed no changes in any of the cognitive functions following the training program based on shadow boxing videos. However, after the VR training, participants exhibited better performance in selective attention and observation tests, as well as in tests assessing inhibitory processes – the Stroop test and the go/no-go test.
“Gamified physical training with VR seems to be a great combination for enhancing cognitive functions for a similar or even a lower training load as compared to a traditional physical training. The added value of VR and gaming to simple physical exercise is undoubtable here, whether it is related to an increased adhesion of the participants to the training or a greater allocation of cognitive resources to the training. It should be mentioned that VR exergame training-induced cognitive adaptation seems specific to the task virtually simulated and does not lead to a global cognitive arousal,” the study authors concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the potentials of VR training. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study sample was extremely small, consisted solely of young people who were overwhelmingly male, and the training sessions were also extremely short and few. Very few real-life physical training programs consist solely of five 15-minute exercises. Longer training programs, studies on larger samples and individuals with more diverse demographics might not yield equal results.
The paper, “How Exergaming with Virtual Reality Enhances Specific Cognitive and Visuo-Motor Abilities: An Explorative Study”, was authored by Sidney Grosprêtre, Philémon Marcel-Millet, Pauline Eon, and Bettina Wollesen.