In most definitions of cognition, the word “mental” lies in its central description. “The mental process of acquiring knowledge,” reads its blandest Wikipedia description. In the most colloquial of terms, though, cognition is merely thinking. And with “embodied cognition,” a term explored by Enlightenment-era philosopher René Descartes, thinking isn’t merely relegated to the mental aspects of our mind. It branches into how we move and interpret information through other non-brain specific functions as well. In a podcast cataloging his experience, VR developer and enthusiast Kent Bye visited the IEEE VR academic conference back in March, where he attended the “Embodied Cognition educational workshop.”
Dancing is a metaphor for computational thinking
The “Embodied Cognition educational workshop” that Bye attended was home to the VENVI (Virtual Environment Interactions), a programming software that lets users easily program a character and a sequence of steps to coincide with it. Bye spoke to Nikeetha D’Souza, who worked alongside the VENVI team to teach middle school children the basics of computational thinking through dance. And not merely through dance, but through planning out the visual scripting language for an avatar to act out (from hopping to criss crossing, and other dance moves). Upon completion, the kids are able to join their fully-choreographed virtual pal in VR, dancing alongside them in real time.
A typical class day for D’Souza’s team’s project begins with getting the kids to dance by playing a simple song that gives directions (such as taking a step to the left, or turning around). Eventually, that graduates into using the VENVI software, and teaching the girls the step-by-step methods to choreographing a dance routine for their virtual avatar. According to D’Souza, dancing is a metaphor for computational thinking. While software can feel daunting from the outside as with dancing, by taking it step by step (or conditional by conditional) it can seem a little less scary.
In relating visually-intimidating functions to something fun, like dance, students grew increasingly engaged with the software. Once VR was thrown into the mix, the rewards climbed higher. Their creations were made immersive in ways not imaginable before. As D’Souza told Bye on the Voices of VR podcast, “We use our bodies to think.” And what better way to think, than pulling out some sick dance moves.
You can listen to the “Embodied Cognition” episode of the Voices of VR podcast here, and read more about VENVI’s dance project here.