Learning Immunology in IVR: A Story of Neutrophils

Imagine being able to experience a battle between your own immune cells and the pathogens you come into contact with every second from the viewpoint of a single immune cell. You are a foot soldier protecting the body against foreign invaders at all costs. You would view yourself traveling through blood vessels until you sense the invading pathogen and then migrate through tight spaces in tissues until you come into contact with the pathogen and unleash an arsenal of toxic chemicals or “traps” to kill the pathogen. It is an amazing viewpoint and you have more than five thousand of these cells in every droplet of your blood! Without the immune system, humans would die within one day because they are exposed to pathogens everywhere in the environment. However, those incredible immune cells and their fantastic journeys inside human body and battles with pathogens can only be observed under microscopes in lab settings and are not easy to be accessed by common people. Moreover, the complexity of how human immune systems work adds difficulty to the understanding of some important immunology concepts in college biology classrooms.


To visualize what happens in human immune systems in an educational way, we created an immersive virtual reality (IVR) experience that integrates elements of storytelling, gaming mechanisms, principles of learning sciences and instructional design to promote learning of specific immunology concepts through rich interactions and engaging narratives within a virtual environment. During the experience, a user will be taking on the role of a specific immune cell called neutrophil inside human body and experiencing its migration process from blood vessels to a site of infection in body tissues and killing pathogens there with three different killing mechanisms (phagocytosis, granulation, NETS).  


The overarching goal of this interdisciplinary project is to create an immersive virtual reality based educational experience that specifically targets various aspects of science learning within virtual environments. The project prototype is intended to serve as a testbed that can be used to investigate a variety of possible research questions related to science learning in IVR, such as, level of interactivity on learning, attention design in immersive storytelling experience, etc.