Spatial Cognition and Computation 2: 355–372, 2000.
© 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Three dimensional spatial memory and learning in
real and virtual environments
CHARLES M. OMAN
, WAYNE L. SHEBILSKE
, JASON T.
, TRAVIS C. TUBRÉ
, ANDREW C. BEALL
Man Vehicle Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139,
Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4235,
Address for Correspondence: Man Vehicle Laboratory, Room 37-219, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. Fax: +1 (617) 258-8111; E-mail:
Received 23 June 2000; accepted 07 March 2002
Abstract. Human orientation and spatial cognition partly depends on our ability to remember
sets of visual landmarks and imagine their relationship to us from a different viewpoint. We
normally make large body rotations only about a single axis which is aligned with gravity.
However, astronauts who try to recognize environments rotated in 3 dimensions report that
their terrestrial ability to imagine the relative orientation of remembered landmarks does not
easily generalize. The ability of human subjects to learn to mentally rotate a simple array of
six objects around them was studied in 1-G laboratory experiments. Subjects were tested in a
cubic chamber (n = 73) and a equivalent virtual environment (n = 24), analogous to the interior
of a space station node module. A picture of an object was presented at the center of each wall.
Subjects had to memorize the spatial relationships among the six objects and learn to predict
the direction to a speciﬁc object if their body were in a speciﬁed 3D orientation. Percent correct
learning curves and response times were measured. Most subjects achieved high accuracy
from a given viewpoint within 20 trials, regardless of roll orientation, and learned a second
view direction with equal or greater ease. Performance of the subject group that used a head
mounted display/head tracker was qualitatively similar to that of the second group tested in
a physical node simulator. Body position with respect to gravity had a signiﬁcant but minor
effect on performance of each group, suggesting that results may also apply to weightless
situations. A correlation was found between task performance measures and conventional
paper-and-pencil tests of ﬁeld independence and 2&3 dimensional ﬁgure rotation ability.
Key words: mental imagery, mental rotation, spatial memory, spatial orientation, vestibular,
Humans keep track of their orientation and location by a normally effortless
and reliable sensory integration process, even when visual cues are moment-