Virtual reality is easily one of the most popular technologies in the modern world. The foremost reasons for this are the immersive nature of each experience, the quality and quantity of games that are VR compatible, and its versatility as a gaming, training, and educational tool. The best part about it is that virtual reality development is creating newer, better ways to complete traditional tasks because of its ability to trick the human brain into thinking that the actions taken within the simulation are happening for real. It doesn’t matter if the heavy machinery or chemical compounds are real or not if the simulation can teach the brain to complete the tasks with accuracy that transfers directly to the real world.
How does virtual reality trick your brain into thinking that the virtual simulation you’re using is in fact the physical world? Logically, we can sit in a room and understand that it’s a simulation. We’re wearing head mounted displays (HMDs) and sensors that track our movements. Other tools we’re using to enhance the experience are all part of the technology that creates the virtual environment we’re in. Logically, there is a divide between the physical and the virtual. However, there is a whole other factor that adds to the experience that virtual reality developers have to take into consideration to make the simulation appear physically real: our brains. Using brains science and a little bit of magic to understand how they work, virtual reality developers can create the most realistic VR experiences possible.
VR is the Merging of Brain Science and Technology
Tricking the brain into thinking that the images seen in a simulation are what the user is actually experiencing has everything to do with the user’s perception of the experience, rather than the experience itself. By examining the way our brain receives stimuli from physical touch and movement, and auditory sensation as well as visual, VR content creators can dial into exactly what mechanics make the brain respond the way that it does. In a 2016 article by Laura Mingail, she compares the process of creating VR experiences to magicians on a stage. Using this tactic, we can see why VR is able to give us this deeply convincing perception of reality.
1. Making Mental Arguments It starts off by creating a little nudge, and our brains are so powerful that it takes that nudge and follows a path to process the nudge. But the nudge is only the beginning. We question everything as we go about our day, and similar to a magician’s act, in order to make the brain believe the reality of what they’re seeing, a mental argument must be made to make the virtual world exist. This comes in the form of haptic feedback from different sensory experiences.
2. Offer the Illusion of Choice A big factor in magic, as well as virtual reality, is the decision to cast off the notion of reality, to allow for this false reality to exist in the same space. A VR content creator must take this into account, and adjust for the choices that a person makes in the virtual simulation, and guide them towards the choices that they want the user to make, while making it seem as if the decision is entirely on the user themselves. In the production phase, observation and study helps developers know that the cues they’ve given are working well.
3. Control Attention with Emotion As a standard, our brains are only capable of a certain amount of sensory input. The way that magicians control where their audience looks and how they interpret this input is by pulling their attention into another space, or giving them so much input that they can only focus on one thing: fear, joy, excitement. In other words, emotion. Mingail says that “If the audience is laughing, they can’t pay attention, leaving them more prone to be surprised by something moments later.” By controlling where the VR user’s focus is, creators can leverage this lack of attention and sensory and emotional overload to their advantage; effectively tricking the brain to focus only on what is real and physical (the sounds, sights, and motions), rather than what is not.
4. Leverage the Senses The goal of VR is to create a seemingly real experience for every user, but that can change depending on the person. For instance, a visually impaired person may find it easier to lose themselves in a simulation with as little as audio and haptic cues, but another may find it easier with less of either, and more of the other. By controlling what the person sees, hears, and feels, VR content creators are able to valuably manipulate the experience for each individual, similar to how a magician might manipulate an audience member with specific hand motions, or calling attention to an audience member’s outfit.
5. Tap into Your Audience’s Desires Possibly the most important factor in VR creation is understanding your audience and what they want specifically to happen within the simulation. This is especially useful in gaming or exposure therapy, where the user’s desire is for specific interactions and situations to be believable. Part of the believability is in that they want the event to be real. In taking what they want and manipulating the simulation into being exactly what they asked for, you’re tapping into the exact thing that will seal the deal.
The Challenges Behind VR Realism
While virtual reality is one of the best ways for people to learn and experience events they might not have otherwise been able to, there comes with it challenges that hold certain groups back. For instance, it can be isolating in long term use. It can also give rise to certain health issues, such as nausea, vomiting, and headaches, to name a few. There also comes with VR a certain amount of desensitization, which is especially beneficial for exposure therapy purposes, but could also pose a threat to mental health when used outside of supervision by a mental health professional.
It also poses certain ethical questions, such as with particularly violent games being played. Because of the intense levels of immersion that virtual reality is capable of, some ethical questions come into play, popularized by movies like The Matrix and Don’t Worry Darling. Is creating a world that is seemingly real on all fronts, tricking the brain into believing that the simulation is the real deal, ethically and morally sound?
Perhaps there will never be a VR experience that truly changes our perception of the world around us, like these simulation stories, but that won’t stop virtual reality developers from trying to make the most realistic simulations possible. It also won’t change the fact that VR development happens to be one of the most efficient training and educational tools available today. Virtual reality technology, in the end, creates better learning outcomes by fully immersing the user into the simulated environment instead of the real-world environment, effectively tricking their brain into believing that they truly experienced the event. The ability that companies and educators have to utilize this technology to create fully capable workers, students, and overall human beings, by capitalizing on these magic little brain hacks only create a perception of reality, and will never replace the real thing.