There are seemingly endless possibilities for the future of virtual reality, from immersive entertainment experiences to films that make you feel as if you’re driving in the front seat right alongside your favourite movie star.
These futuristic visions are heart-thumping for more than the sheer wow-factor. They’re so exciting, in fact, that producers and technologists behind VR experiences face a vexing conundrum: The primary appeal of VR is its hyper-realism — it injects viewers directly into impossible-seeming scenarios — but what about when the scenes get a little too real? What’s the effect on the body and brain?
"VR heavily depends on visual dominance, which means that your mind believes what it sees over the other senses," says Thomas B. Talbot, the principal medical expert for the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. Because of this factor – the technical term is ecological validity – virtual reality is especially powerful.
The physical and psychological implications of a VR experience are valid considerations, and scientists and directors/editors/producers of VR take them seriously. Particularly for viewers with certain health conditions, special care must be taken to ensure that a VR experience doesn’t unnecessarily trigger an unwanted reaction.
"Things like scares or falls might seem much more realistic in VR."
Below, we dig into the biological science behind VR and how the professionals in charge of building these experiences take such factors into account.
The role of biological science
There are a few basic scientific elements to take into consideration when producing a VR experience, Talbot explains.
"Nearly all of VR is heavily entwined with neurobiology and human factors research," he says. In order to craft a safe experience, "one really needs to understand human perception and how it works on a biological level."
Talbot lists a few questions that must be asked in the research phase: How do people see details? How do we perceive scenes? What are the mechanisms that make sounds appear to come from specific locations in space? How is balance affected?
Various technologies and monitoring systems are often used in VR testing to mitigate the most common, mild adverse effects — dizziness, nausea, etc.
"Use of heart rate is mostly done in research settings to detect variations that show stress effects, but otherwise VR makes use of motion detection, user actions and lots of neurobiological principles to make the VR technology seem real to the user," Talbot explains.
Mitigating risk while delivering thrills
VR-induced nausea or dizziness is a real concern, writes tech journalist Scott Stein, who suggests that some developers are mitigating this by designing games to provide a sense of enclosure — a cockpit or a helmet seems to ameliorate nausea, at least partially. This sensation is a close relative to "simulator sickness," Stein explains, which has long been an issue for pilots during flight simulator training programs.
More serious issues may arise for VR users with heart conditions, anxiety or who experience seizures. In these cases, consulting a doctor before immersing in a VR world is highly encouraged. This is not, however, wildly different than consulting a doctor before riding a particularly intense roller coaster or engaging in any kind of adrenaline-pumping activity.
On the flip side, there are a variety of health conditions for which VR has been found to be an effective treatment — at least when combined with traditional therapies — such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as other anxiety disorders and phobias.
What it ultimately comes down to is a bit of common sense on the user’s side, as well as some creative solutions by the design and research teams developing the experiences. Talbot suggests that as the technology improves and becomes more common, our brains may simply adjust.
"One of the earliest films shown in a movie theater was of a train moving towards a camera — the audience panicked as if the train were going to crash in the theater. So, what this means is that people will probably get used to VR to some degree," he says, citing the fact that displays are constantly improving with wider fields of view and fast image refreshes that may cut down on disorientation, dizziness or eye strain.
David Cohen-Tanugi, founder of the MIT-spinout EMBR Labs, suggests that there’s still innumerable exciting possibilities for truly immersive experiences with the world of VR; we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.
"Thermal sensations have a profound effect on the way we perceive and interact with the people around us," he says. "For example, how comforting is a hug without warmth? Science has shown that the commonly used expressions ‘warm smile’ or ‘cold ‘shoulder’ are more than just comfortable language. They reflect that humans experience social interactions with thermal undertones."
Cohen-Tanugi adds that the next step toward "completely immersive virtual environments" is focusing on multisensory elements that transcend sight and sound.
Aron Hjartarson, the executive creative director for Framestore VR, an award-winning digital studio that specializes in VR experiences, says that there are a few things that can be done from a creative perspective to create a realistic user experience.
"The science part of this is largely in the hands of the hardware manufacturers," he says. "For our part, when we have worked with scientists [on the creative side], they have been reluctant to make any sweeping statements about the laws of the medium. They need longer term research."
Hjartarson explains that within a virtual reality world, there are three axes — the X, Y and Z. Within these, there are varying “degrees of freedom”: rotational, translational and scaling.
In Hjartarson’s experience, rotational is the element that can be slightly nauseating. To mitigate this, he says his creative team generally tries to give the user the most amount of perceived control over rotational elements as possible.
"If we have to [mess with rotational elements], we provide the user with an enclosed space or with some kind of artificial horizon. This way, your mind tells you that even though your environment is rotating around you, you feel grounded in a sense," he explains.
"The freedom that the medium provides compared to everything else we usually do is so immense."
In general, Hjartarson finds the medium exceptionally creatively liberating.
"The freedom that the medium provides compared to everything else we usually do is so immense," he says, citing that a 360-degree context means there’s a lot more room for flexibility and in a way, honesty. You can’t hide much in VR – so it requires extremely detail-oriented design. Talented editors are part of the key to an ultimately seamless experience.
VR presents a world of nearly unlimited possibilities; as the technology continues to improve and developers learn how to mitigate the physical challenges, it’s thrilling to think about what the future for the medium may hold.
"In a way, you're completely exposed. It’s a cool feeling," says Hjartarson. "And a cool context in which to Awork."