From Imagined Contexts to Virtual Reality: Using VR for Linguistic Fieldwork

From Imagined Contexts to Virtual Reality: Using VR for Linguistic Fieldwork

Irina Morozova explains how researchers are using virtual reality technology to offer complete context and why it is important.

With virtual reality technology, or VR, participants are offered an immersive environment and context. This is what is missing from current data collection methodologies. A pilot study by Dr. Jenneke van der Wal and Dr. Paz Gonzalez Gonzalez suggests that VR (virtual reality) technology is a key to solving this issue.


Why VR?

One of the challenges that researchers face while collecting linguistic data is context, which can never be fully controlled. Words and structures depend on it, but elicitation, in most cases, fails to account for it properly. Providing native speakers with the context, verbally or visually with the help of illustration, solves the issue only partially since the researcher cannot control for all the details that are added (consciously or subconsciously) by the participant to complete the picture. How can the researcher and the speaker have the same picture in mind? This creates challenges for the data analysis.

VR technology provides a solution. It creates an immersive environment which can be controlled by the researcher. By creating 360° videos, it is possible to offer a complete context and allow the speaker and the researcher to stay on the same page.

What do we do?

To implement VR in fieldwork, we need first to create 360° videos. These are the scenarios - carefully curated by the researcher - to provide a common shared ground and make the setting as realistic as possible. It is only after the videos are created that we can add specific elicitation questions. After that, we are ready for the speaker.

The preparation process takes some time because the speaker needs to get used to VR. For many speakers, it might be their first time trying goggles! It is important to allow the speaker to explore the VR space without having to think about language. The speaker should be given sufficient time to fully understand the concept of VR and feels comfortable turning around and seeing the complete context proposed. The techniques for the target trials might differ depending on the aim of the research. These will include asking the speaker to:

  • describe what they see while being exposed to VR
  • respond to built-in questions while they are in that virtual space
  • for descriptions or judgments after they have finished the 360° video.

Our current research focuses on the use of aspect in Spanish and present tense in Changana (a Bantu language), requiring to look into subtle differences in the context that might influence the form used.

What have we learnt so far?

Most of the participants were really excited about the methodology! Not only was it interesting for them to try out VR, but they also were conscious and enthusiastic about the benefits of this novel way of data collection. They also reported feeling completely immersed and part of the virtual reality while the video was running.

Among the practicalities noticed, special attention should be put on the positioning of the speaker. While being in the virtual space, speakers are just observers, therefore, they should remain static while being able to look around. For this, we suggest the use of a rotating chair. Some of the obstacles while running the research include speakers wearing glasses, as the goggles do not fit all glasses. While the technology is in many ways intuitive, teaching the speaker to navigate it takes time. It is not possible to see from the outside what the person in the headset is looking at. So, one should make sure to be able to, first, switch on the correct stimuli and then pass the headset to the speaker.

The current project is pioneering in using VR for fieldwork and focuses mostly on methodology. While keeping the challenges in mind, we are convinced that VR is a pathway to more accurate and reliable data collection in the future!

Special thanks go to the Faculty for providing funding for the new equipment.