What is Virtual Reality?
1.1 Definitions and principles
There are various definitions of what Virtual Reality (VR) is. Different sources indicate that “Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world”. That definition clearly hints that VR is not a new concept, and neither are all the equipment and software that come with it. In this context, a new definition is proposed to be added to the current ones: VR can be seen as a set of systems and devices designed to trick the human brain. This kind of provocative statement reflects what the whole experience is about, be it with older systems or current ones.
VR is sometimes mixed up with Augmented Reality (AR). In contrast to VR, where the user is in fact isolated from the physical world, AR allows the user to still see the real environment and add or enrich information via a see-through system. This can range from the simple camera of a smartphone to the lenses of a much more specific device such as Microsoft’s Hololens, Epson’s Moverio or Magicleap glasses.
If we consider the current systems and software, we can assume that VR requires the following elements:
- Device providing stereoscopic vision
- Audio system capable of 360°sound feedback
- Tracking system capable, as a minimum, to track the position of the head of the user along three axes.
This article focuses on VR provided by Head Mounted Devices (HMDs) or headsets, rather than other systems such as VR Caves that project images on walls but are not widely in usage. There is a great number of additional systems, which can reinforce the illusion that the user is transported in a different environment than “real reality”. There’s a broad span of devices in the market and many exciting developments underway that will get us closer to the Ready Player One full immersion devices.
What does VR do to you?
VR can make you believe that you see and feel things, which are actually not there. It is already the case in two reasonably accessible use cases: VR entertainment and VR video.
2.1 VR in entertainment
A quick glance at the average VR Arena providing Location-Based Entertainment (LBE) with VR equipment shows the following behaviours observed on users:
Objects seem real
Even in situations where it is impossible for them to actually interact with the objects (e.g., when it is only a passive experience with no interaction modelled), users can be seen waving their hands across the space to try to grab something flying in front of their noses.
The virtual environment takes over from the physical environment
In situations where a table or a desk is modeled in a 3D environment, it is not rare that users drop controllers or other objects on a non-existent table. Users can be seen moving their feet up in order to climb stairs that belong to the virtual world; or leaning on a ramp that unfortunately is only a 3D object and falling heavily as a consequence.
Risks and threats are perceived real and so is fear consequently
One interesting VR experience brings users on top of a building, 100 meters up in the air; they must walk across a plank that seems very thin in this context – and is mapped in “mixed reality” with an actual plank laying on the floor. It is then quite amusing to see users crawling on the physical floor, or getting paralysed mid-way, whereas observers see them walking on a 2 cm thick wooden plank resting on the otherwise perfectly stable floor of the room. Likewise, the scary virtual zombie that jumps at you from a virtual dark corner causes real screaming, and the virtual roller coaster experience causes the users to grab hard onto their seats and sometimes move their body to compensate for the movement of the cart.
Even seasoned VR users will feel the palms of their hands get slightly wet when jumping into a virtual void, as their brains tell them they are in danger, no matter what the intellectual mechanisms provide as an explanation.
2.2 VR video – Agency and presence
When filming with a 360-degree equipment, the purpose of the director is to tell a story with the additional power that viewers can look around as if they were in the actual environment. Though you cannot directly interact with the story in a 360-degree video, you can still choose where to look, which allows you to “create” your own experience of the story. This freedom of choice is called agency.
Agency helps generate presence. Presence is the sensation of actually being there when you are in a VR experience. If audiences recall a given VR experience by relating it to a moment they lived, rather than something they watched, the creator has provided them with a sense of presence. Concisely, VR can give a false impression to your brain and body that you have the freedom to explore and interact with its content.
How can we use VR?
VR is already an efficient means to increase the fun in entertainment activities and gives the new advantage to film directors to transport their audiences in a story that comes alive. Now the same effects can be used for a very different purpose: human health.
3.1 Distraction from pain
Our minds are constructed in such a way that we only have a limited attention span. According to psychologists, attention is the behavioural and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete stimulus while ignoring other perceivable stimuli. Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time (2). To simplify, presented with a great number of stimuli, our mind might choose to ignore a part and focus on others. The selection process is complex but the stimuli, which are most prominent, may be the ones that get the most attention. VR is a very powerful way to construct stimuli that will attract the user’s attention, with all its presence and immersive power. A number of medical studies have therefore focused on VR as a means to reduce perceived pains e.g. during the treatment of wounds or severe burns, with successful results – based on the patient’s pain perception reports(3)(4). Presented with a powerful set of stimuli, the brain tends to reduce the attention given to a source of pain that would otherwise be very heavy.
Without going to the extremes of wounds and burns, another simple and efficient use of VR is to distract from the pain and effort that is otherwise very perceptible when working out in gym rooms. This is a combination between the distraction caused by a new experience (a VR environment) and the goals that have to be achieved, therefore focusing the attention and willpower of the user.
It doesn’t even require a dedicated software or hardware – a carefully selected set of games can produce the equivalent of gym sessions, see below the heart rate data for a player on Beat Saber©, a popular VR game. According to the measuring device Garmin Forerunner, the player burnt 122 calories in 16 minutes of gaming – and had a lot of fun. For reference, that equates to around two (2) kilometers of running.
3.2 Influencing the moods and spirits
Stress has been dubbed the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization and technology is often cited as one of the major contributors to the stress of modern life. Meditation has been proven, in peer-reviewed scientific studies, to be one of the most effective solutions to stress. With VR, this takes another dimension, as it is possible to act quickly and efficiently on the mindset and mood of the user, for instance placed in a calm and pleasant environment such as a tropical beach, or on top of a mountain. Here VR is used as a complement for techniques that otherwise would not exist; but they might also bring to Meditation Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) an audience that would have never looked into the method and will come to it through the attraction of a new technology.
VR limits from the distraction of the real world and brings the user to relaxing new places to practice meditation. A study involving 44 MBSR, experts and practitioners revealed that participants felt significantly more relaxed after making use of VR equipment while meditating.
3.3 Providing a reproducible stimulus
When it comes to learning, VR can provide a striking experience, therefore helping to engrave the learning deeper into the participant’s memory. As a bonus, since it can be programmed or automated, it is possible to expose all trainees to the same material, without difference in quality and experience, as it might be the case when a “real” trainer is intervening. An example of VR learning is training for public speaking or job interview preparation. Users are faced with a pre-recorded situation and their capacity to react to interruptions, events, stimuli. Experts evaluate questions – naturally, the provided stimuli are much stronger than what would be possible on a 2D screen or even a questionnaire. Facing an angry customer, managing your sponsor, etc., are all scenarios used in simulations that VR4business has built to work on soft skill development or testing.
Repeatability is key, as KFC demonstrated when using a VR simulation to train new employees on the production chain. Here, additional benefits include no material wasted while training for the proper set of operational moves. Another way to use the stimulus effect is to work on phobias. First by researching what precise stimulus is actually related to the phobia, then by exposing the subject to repeated and progressively stronger stimuli, it is possible to reduce the propensity of the user to fear in real life.
Correlation between the stimulus in VR and the effect on the user can be easily traced, when shown by the heart rate evolution of the subject during one VR phobia session that took place in the premises of Second World in Lausanne, Switzerland. The subject was working on her acrophobia and, in the initial session was presented with an elevator opening on the void, at a great altitude.
Here again, the interest of VR lies both in the power of immersion that makes the stimuli extremely efficient, and the ease of operation compared to a real-life setup. It would take significant time and financial means to bring subjects on the edge of a cliff, in a hot air balloon or on top of a building.
What is the conclusion?
With its immersive and presence feature, VR can effectively help steering both physical and psychological parameters for human beings. This can be used for applications improving mental and physical health, as well as self-development, V-learning, V-training. It is already a reality, and the evolution of the equipment, software as well as knowledge on the mechanisms will most likely make it a central component of a great number of activities in the field of cognitive sciences, entertainment and health in the coming years.
EU Tech Advocate
CEO and Founder, VR4 Business