Virtual reality may feel like a new technology given its recent surge in popularity, but depending on how pedantic you’re feeling it’s either been around for about 20 years with VR arcade machines like the Virtuality, or about 50 if you’re willing to include Morton Heilig’s Sensorama. And yet it still isn’t quite the cornucopia of dreams that we want it to be.
The allure of VR is obvious; you get to strap on a headset and you’re instantly transported to another world, usually one that you'd never be able to visit otherwise. Samsung has summed it up pretty well with the tagline to their recent adverts for the GearVR: "Do what you can’t".
And to a certain extent VR can deliver on that promise. Yeah, you can fly an X-wing. Yeah, you can fight the undead horde. And yeah, you can sit courtside at that NBA game you could never afford in real life.
But for those of us that have been lucky enough to experience the technical marvel that is a modern VR headset, there is a dirty niggling secret at the back of your mind. Something always feels like it’s missing. You know you aren’t actuallythere.
There are games where you use controls to move around, and some of them are incredibly effective, but as your eyes are being given the data that you’re moving when your body is telling your brain it’s staying still, you can be hit with a motion sickness like no other.
Out of sight, out of mind
And this is basically an issue of input; one of your senses being told something that doesn’t match up with what your other senses are being told. And once you realize that VR only really caters for two senses, that dissonance is a real issue.
You might be thinking that two out of five isn’t bad, and if you are, you’re one of the millions of people fooled into thinking that we only have five senses. You actually have more. And, no, we’re not talking about ‘I see dead people’ senses.
Yeah you have the five big hitters, but you also have a sense of temperature, a sense of time, a sense of direction, a sense of proprioception (where your body is in space) and a whole host of others that frankly don’t tie into this piece so we’re not going to talk about here.
Funnily, Morton Heilig’s Sensorama 50 years ago catered to more of our senses than modern VR does. It was a booth that you sat in, that vibrated, blew wind at you, and had scents for the environments that you were experiencing.
But what is the solution to this sensory deprivation in VR?
There are some pretty interesting devices that are currently being made that (whether they know it or not) are the descendent of the Sensorama, trying to make VR a more comprehensive sensory experience.
Some are amazing, some are terrifying, some are hilarious. Here we have collected a few of our favorites for your sensory pleasure.
Without doubt, one of our favorite things that VR has enabled us to do is fly. Or simulate the experience of flying at least. But there is something about physically feeling like you are just, you know, stood there, that does rob some of the joy from the experience.
We tried the Birdly...bird simulator to see if it could help us live out that fantasy of being an eagle, swooping majestically over a San Francisco skyline. If the feeling of flight is supposed to be dignified, getting into it isn’t.
You clamber onto the device which closely resembles a Transformer’s sex toy, lay prostrate, strap your hands onto the control panels, and slip into the VR headset.
As soon as the experience starts, the setup is totally worth the payoff. Birdly tilts your entire body down, wind literally blowing in your face as you plummet. You flap your ‘wings’ and you fly up. Words don't do it justice.
You don’t ever truly lose the experience of feeling like you’re in two places at once but it’s a great experience.
Moving through space is definitely an issue in VR. Most of the time you are limited to a space no more than a few meters across, and frankly if you’ve been transported with the magic of VR to an amazing vista, you don’t want to just stand still once you’re there.
The idea of a treadmill makes sense, as we already use them to replicate human locomotion without actually moving, but the ability to move in any direction poses a mechanical issue. The way a ‘linear’ treadmill works is by having a band that loops eternally under your feet. As soon as you want to deviate from a straight line, the loop no longer works.
In slides the Virtuix Omni treadmill. The ‘treadmill’ bit is a slight misnomer. It’s not a treadmill like you’ve ever experienced one. It’s more a slippery concave circle covered in sensors. You wear equally slippy shoes, strap yourself in, and then walk, run, or strafe your way through a VR world. Or slip, slip faster, and slip sideways. There’s a reason you’re strapped in.
If you want a little demo of the Virtuix Omni in action, check out the video above of when we saw it in action at CES back in 2014. All these years later and the Virtuix Omni is only available for commercial purchase which is frustrating.
There is a VR treadmill on the market that we have tried, the ROVR from WizDish, but its movement dynamic is even more unnatural, using a similar sliding technology but this time on a flat platform so you have to shuffle your feet back and forward to move. If you want to enjoy our Jon Porter experiencing it, check out the video here.
Much like the idea of the VR treadmill, clearly the thought behind VirZoom was to take a piece of technology that already simulated movement and make it into a VR controller. But to be fair, when we tried it at E3 a few years ago, we said that it “may be the best VR controller you can buy”.
VirZoom works with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, GearVR and Playstation VR. It has a selection of games, including one flying on the back of Pegasus. We never would have made the connection between an exercise bike and the flying horse of greek mythology but it seems to work.
What’s quite telling is that these modes of movement all came along before VR became room-scale and movement became possible. Next up is an idea that’s in the works for the future of physical engagement in VR.
Haptic feedback EMS
Haptic feedback is the process of using touch to feedback to a user. The little vibrations every time you type a letter on your touchscreen are haptic feedback, for instance. The idea of using haptics to create a sense of existing physically in a digital space makes sense, but using EMS is a big step.
EMS is short for electronic muscular stimulation, and is the process of using small electrical charges to cause muscular contraction. Without getting too bogged down in the science, your body does this amazing thing called reciprocal inhibition that disengages a muscle’s antagonist when contracting.
So if you want to lift a heavy bag, your bicep engages and its antagonist muscle the tricep disengages. What EMS haptic feedback does is engage the tricep so even though you aren’t picking up the heavy bag, you feel the resistance as if you are.
This isn't a commercially available product yet, rather research being carried out by Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute. Apparently they have had some very promising results so far.
Mario Kart arcade
If that all sounds a bit much, we have definitely saved the best for last. There is a VR arcade that has opened in Japan called VR Zone Shinjuki, that has a whole host of peripheral gadgets that you can strap yourself into to get a more full-body VR experience. These include a skiing one, a flying bike one, and because it’s Japan, a number of fighting robot ones.
These all pale in comparison to the Mario Kart experience. You strap into a little kart, pop on your headset, and you are in the world of Mario Kart, dodging banana skins, chucking turtle shells and hurtling under Princess Peach’s Castle. Sign us up.
The rumors are that these fantastic machines are going to be getting a global rollout too, with plans in the pipeline for a London attraction as early as this summer.
Let's get physical, physical
So, it looks a little like VR is heading back into arcades where it started, albeit with some major upgrades. But does it actually stimulate our plethora of human senses any more than the Sensorama did?
Ideally what we'd like is a VR experience that fully caters to the experience of being human. Something more like the Holodeck from Star Trek. And there is a possibility that we are heading in that direction. When questioned about the future of VR, one of the Oculus display research team said that the future of VR was most likely going to be in holography.
So perhaps this current stage of VR with a device strapped to your face is simply a stepping stone to actual virtual reality. Whatever that'll look like. Or smell like. Or feel like. Or...you get the gag.