But really, What is VR?
The definition of Virtual Reality can be a bit slippery and can vary depending on who you ask. But all subjectivity aside, virtual reality is a computer-generated artificial environment. When done properly, VR transports users to an alternate simulated environment created to stimulate a user’s sight, smell, touch, hearing and vision to make them belief the experience is real. Achieving this goal hinges on whether the specific VR technology can make a user feel that they are “in” the experience. Of course, not all senses must be tapped to create such an allusion, but the more senses stimulated the better for total immersion. Here is where the VR community is at with stimulating the various senses.
Head Mounted Displays, or HMD’s, like the PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift are becoming the clear choice for VR end users as a method for delivering high class graphics at historically rock-bottom prices. HMD’s are display devices that are worn on one’s head or as part of a helmet. The Oculus company was a pioneer in compiling the technology at reasonable rates around 2015. Prior to the Oculus Rift, most consumer HMD’s had a diagonal field of view of about 30 to 40 degrees, and you were only able to see a small image way off in the VR distance. But the oculus Rift debuted a 110-degree diagonal field of vision that made users feel less like they were staring at a VR screen and more like they were “in” the experience. What’s more, the device originally sold for $600 dollar’s making it accessible to programmers and gamer’s alike.
Once HMD hardware became available the applications for the device have expanded rapidly including innovations in gaming, aviation, engineering, and medicine. Companies like XR are using HMD tech to deliver workspace solutions to a variety of industries.
When it comes to VR immersion, perhaps the most important sensory input is sound as people react first to auditory cues than visual ones. Many VR content creators use binaural recording to create a 3-D sound sensation. Two microphones are set up 7 inches apart often in a ‘dummy head recording” where each “ear” is fitted with a microphone. This type of recording and play back go back to 1881 but did not gain favor with the public until the 1980’s. Spatial audio is now coming into its own with the ability to “localize” a sound, where if you had your eyes closed you could imagine certain sounds emanating from a particular direction and distance.
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Tactile inputs are still being developed and incorporated into the VR landscape. Tactile input can include light touch, firm touch, and the perception of different textures including dry to wet and messy. Such inputs as omni-directional treadmills simulate walking or running through content rather than passively experiencing from a chair or couch. Tactile input wearables such as the ‘teslasuit’ are being integrating Electro Muscular Stimulation, or EMS, into a wireless suit. The suit is intended to mimic sensations ranging from a cool breeze to the impact of a bullet. Such technology has not yet gone mainstream, but when it does, it is sure to be a game changer.
Other tactile inputs have been developed and implemented in VR for over 20 years. Haptics or touch feedback has progressed from vibrating rumble motors to ultrasonic feedback. Children of the 90’s will remember one of the first widespread applications of haptics as the “rumble pack” attachment to the Nintendo 64 game controller. When one pulled the trigger on the controller a spinning weight motor would make the controller vibrate simulating action. Modern Haptics can be found in newer smart-phones.
Taste & Smell
The taste and smell sensations have not developed in VR at the same rate as the other senses. This remains a mystery to those that see these sense’s as the holy grail of the VR experience. Recent research by the University of Ottawa has found that adding smell to a VR environment “increases the sense of presence”. Several theme park attractions have used perfumery to trick the minds and noses of audiences. When the viewer approaches a dumpster, an unpleasant odor would fill the room. Or conversely as the attraction content approached an orange grove a pleasant citrus odor would be piped in. Perceptions of smell can also alter what a VR user is tasting according to the Tokyo University’s Cyber Interface Lab who is undergoing a “Meta-Cookie” project.
Tomorrow’s VR will incorporate all the senses into an experience that rivals real life and beyond. Leaders of the VR sector like Oculus founder, Palmer Luckey, and Tsunami XR CEO, Alex Hern, are at the forefront of this breakthrough. Some analyst are predicting the VR market to rise to $209.2 billion in 2022, which will surely be attributed to heightened sensory inputs.
Learn more about Alex Hern in this recent interveiw.
Connect with Alex Hern on LinkedIn