GR in VR: Using Immersive Virtual Reality as a Learning Tool for General Relativity

Kristen Schumacher, Sonali Joshi, Jina Kang, Eric Shaffer, Jessica Raley, Jose Nijaid Arredondo, Brandon Mark Buncher, Rajan Patkar, Katherine Zine, Daniel Alfredo Caballero, Alexandria Tucker, Mireille Tan, Christopher Vistian

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


According to general relativity, gravity can be understood as a curvature of spacetime in response to the presence of matter and energy. Students often struggle to visualize the geometry of curved spacetime. The standard demonstration used to aid in visualization, that of a ball on an elastic sheet, is fundamentally flawed and may lead to misconceptions. Recent research suggests that virtual reality can improve understanding of spatially complex or abstract concepts. We hypothesize that an interactive virtual reality demonstration involving masses in a curved 3D spatial grid, with clocks representing the relative passage of time, would support improved conceptual understanding and impact attitude among students learning general relativity compared to traditional methods. To test this hypothesis, undergraduate students with no formal experience with general relativity are recruited to evaluate the virtual reality simulation. The students first take a questionnaire to determine a baseline for their conceptual understanding of general relativity, with confidence-scaled multiple choice and written response questions. The experimental group experiences an interactive virtual reality demonstration in which the subjects can move objects through space and time to visualize how mass curves spacetime. An instructor leads the control group through the standard ball on a sheet demo while delivering content orally. Students in both groups are prompted by an instructor to explore the relationship between mass, gravity, and time, guided by a set of conceptual questions. Immediately after the demonstrations, students complete the same questionnaire and a survey about learner attitude and simulation usability. Few previous studies focus on the conceptual understanding of general relativity, and even fewer examine the possibility of immersive learning as a tool for teaching this topic. Our work addresses this gap by designing a novel immersive technique for visualizing relativistic effects and comparing this technique to existing non-immersive methods of instruction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jun 25 2023
Event2023 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - The Harbor of Engineering: Education for 130 Years, ASEE 2023 - Baltimore, United States
Duration: Jun 25 2023Jun 28 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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