Virtual reality gets comfy

Researchers from Germany and Sweden have developed a new virtual reality (VR) environment where the participants believe they're moving while being seated. This approach, which relies on visual and auditory illusions, could leave to commercial low-cost VR simulators in the near future.

If you ever participated to some virtual reality (VR) experiments, you know that the environment is quite expensive and not always user-friendly. In fact, in some immersive environments, it's even possible to feel bad because of motion sickness. This is why researchers from Germany and Sweden have developed a new VR environment where the participants believe they're moving while being seated. This approach, which relies on visual and auditory illusions, could lead to commercial low-cost VR simulators in the near future.

Here is the introduction of this IST Results article.

Creating close to real-life virtual reality (VR) experiences has proven to be costly and has had rather poor results. In response, a European research team has explored how exploiting visual and auditory illusions can possibly lead to low-cost virtual reality simulators of the future.

So the goal of the POEMS project (short for "Perceptually Oriented Ego — Motion Simulation") was to move the environment instead of moving the persons. And the researchers presented their prototype at the 8th Annual International Workshop on Presence which was held in London in September 2005.

At the event a group of 20 participants tested the prototype simulating the market place in Tübingen, Germany. Although seated, with headphones and a screen in front of them, participants got the distinct feeling of moving as the image on the screen in front of them turned around the square.

Below is a partial "photograph of the Tübingen market place, which was wrapped onto a cylinder to provide an undistorted view of the scene for the simulated viewpoint centered in the cylinder" (Credit: POEMS project).

The Tübingen market place

And here is what the participants saw while "seated at a distance of about 1.8m from a curved projection screen" (Credit: POEMS project).

A VR view of the Tübingen market place

Here is how it works.

Basically the simulator exploits a vection illusion of the brain, which makes us believe we are moving when actually we are stationary. The same can be experienced, for instance, when you are stopped at a traffic light in your car and the car next to you edges forward. Your brain interprets this peripheral visual information as though you are moving backwards.

And are these illusions a success for the viewers? Apparently yes.

Using sensory illusions in virtual reality proved successful in creating a state of presence and motion as well as being cost-effective and efficient, explains Dr Bernhard Riecke, the POEMS project coordinator for the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. It competes well with more expensive simulators using motion-platforms, which from earlier research have shown not to significantly add to the experience of motion.

But after building this prototype, what will come next?

"We are currently trying to get new partners into the boat and are negotiating with people from The Netherlands, Britain and Germany, Riecke says. The aim is to build on the findings from POEMS and develop a prototype that includes physical motion. Riecke envisages that such a low-cost simulator, in the future, would allow wider use in the gaming and entertainment industry as well as architectural markets.

Now, if you want to know more about this technology, you should read this technical paper called "Influence of Auditory Cues on the Visually Induced Self-Motion Illusion (Circular Vection) in Virtual Reality" (PDF format, 9 pages, 1.22 MB) from which the above illustrations have been extracted.

Sources: IST Results, April 12, 2006; and various web sites

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