In order to find your way around an environment, we all need to acquire a certain amount of knowledge about that environment.

First, we need to select landmarks along the path that we are going to take.
Second, we need to learn the route by connecting together a series of associations between landmarks and actions (e.g., at the bakery I turn left, then at the bank I turn right).
Finally, the last stage is to develop an understanding of the configuration of the environment. This is a bit like having a map in your head. It allows people to determine the relationships between different landmarks, and to find be able to work out new routes and short cuts within that environment.

For our studies, we are using Virtual Reality to create Virtual Environments (VEs). The virtual reality software allows us to create virtual towns or mazes within which participants can find their way around. Each VE is shown on a laptop screen and the participant uses a mouse and the space key to navigate around the environment. The tasks that we ask participants to do are a bit like video games.

We are asking the following questions :

We are also developing a set of training aids with the aim of bolstering people’s ability to find their way independently.

Which landmark types do people think are most useful?

In this study, we were interested in each participant’s explicit judgments of the usefulness of different types of landmarks. Participants were asked to learn their way around a maze. There were a number of objects (landmarks) within the maze (proximal landmarks at junctions and on path sections) and also on the periphery of the maze (distant landmarks) . After participants had learnt the route through the maze, we asked them which objects they found useful when learning the route.

The results of our studies so far have shown that from seven years, children are able to determine that proximal landmarks that are near junctions are more useful for route-learning than landmarks that are situated along a path section. This is consistent with previous research which has shown that the most important navigation decisions are made when we find ourselves at the intersection of several paths. However, the groups of people with learning difficulties didn’t make this distinction. The groups did make similar judgements when it came to distant landmarks though: all three groups thought that the distant landmarks were less useful than the landmarks that were situated within the maze, i.e. the proximal landmarks.

Junction landmark Junction landmark
Path landmark Path landmark
Distant landmark Distant landmark

Which landmarks are most useful? Landmarks at junctions, those found along the length of a path, or landmarks in the distance?

In this study, we investigated the effect of different landmark types on the ability to learn a novel route. We used the same three landmark types as in the study above (junction landmarks, path landmarks and distant landmarks). This time, each participant took part in three different maze conditions where they were shown a route and asked to learn it. However, instead of including all three landmark types in the same maze, in this study each of the three mazes contained one landmark type only: junction, path or distant landmarks.

Results showed that individuals with DS showed the same pattern of performance as TD children. That is, they made the most errors on mazes that contained just distant landmarks, and no difference was observed between the mazes with just junction or just path landmarks. Individuals with WS showed a unique pattern of performance: no one landmark type helped them any more than another. In other words, they didn’t find it easier to learn the routes in the mazes that contained just proximal landmarks than the maze with just distant landmarks. Contrairement aux enfants au développement typique, elles ne se déplacent pas plus facilement quand les points de repère sont aux intersections plutôt que dans les segments.

Does the kind of environment influence people’s ability to orient themselves and to find short cuts?

Using virtual environments enables us to compare performance across different types of environments. This is useful because it helps us to determine the extent to which the amount of visual information and the diversity of this information impacts on our ability to navigate.

In this study, we created two virtual environments. We called one environment ‘sparse’ and the other ‘rich’. The sparse maze was made of brick walls and contained a small number of landmarks. The rich maze looked like a town (the streets were lined with buildings rather than walls), and contained a larger number of landmarks.

Sparse Environment Sparse Environment
Rich Environment Rich Environment

Each participant took part in two conditions, one with each virtual environment. We were interested in how good participants were at finding short-cuts. To do this, in each condition, we asked participants to learn two routes: the route from A to B and the route from A to C. Once participants had learnt both routes we asked the participants to find the shortest route from B to C, i.e. a short-cut from B to C.

The route from A to B The route from A to B
Itinéraire A-C The route from A to C
The short-cut: B to C The short-cut: B to C

Training studies

The final stage of this project is to develop training methods designed to help people to learn to successfully find their way around a familiar or a novel environment. The training is designed for people with learning difficulties, but also more generally for anybody who finds navigation difficult. The training will take place in virtual environments. This is because it is safer than using real environments , and previous research has shown that learning in a virtual environment transfers to successful performance in the real world.

Our team is currently designing the first training study. We are interested in the effects of verbalising the route during the learning phase. Our main question is: does verbalising during learning improve people’s ability to remember a route?

The training methods will be used with typically developing children and people with learning difficulties .

Have a go at learning your way through a maze

Your task is to learn the route through a maze from the start to the finish. Once you have chosen your maze, there will be two options: ‘Route demonstration’ and ‘Learn the route’.

‘Route demonstration’ will show you the correct route from the start of the maze to the finish using the large yellow and green arrows to guide you, which are shown on the floor of the maze. Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to follow the guidance arrows in the maze.

‘Learn the route’ opens a maze with no yellow guiding arrows. This time, again using the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate, you need to make your own way to the finish making as few errors as possible. Each time you make an error, just retrace your steps back and continue towards the end. When you get to the end, the maze disappears. You can then press ‘Learn the route’ again to have another go. It might take you a few goes to walk the route from start to finish without making any errors, but that’s ok. You can have as many goes as you like.

Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate.
To return to the main menu press escape.

Elstrad Maze Player. Click on the Unity logo below to load the maze player.