What will virtual reality do to our brains?

What are the real implications for virtual reality (VR)? And just how do our brains react while our eyes are tantalised in 360 degrees? I’ve quizzed the lucky rascals at the School of Psychology at the University of East Anglia to find out.

What can virtual reality do to us?

Professor Kenny Coventry leads the drive to understand the effect virtual reality has on the way we think and act. Armed with the kind of advanced VR rigs you definitely won’t find in the High Street, he and Technical Manager Andre Bester want to see what virtual reality can tell us about the most complicated part of any technology – the user.

“Perception of VR is quite similar to perception of reality. You can get sensations in real perception that you can also get in virtual reality,” the Professor explains.

“For example, if you’re in virtual reality and standing behind an avatar of yourself with ‘your’ back in front of you, and then somebody rubs a stick up your real back at the same time as you see a stick rubbed up against your avatar’s back, people have the sensation of actually being in the avatar’s body. It’s like a phantom limb.”

Professor Kenny Coventry University of East Anglia
Professor Kenny Coventry, University of East Anglia

Experimenting with virtual reality

This is bread-and-butter stuff for the School’s Vision and Action Lab. The system they use for experiments is a fully immersive one, so can they monitor body positions in real-time using motion tracking cameras in the ceiling. Walking around a virtual environment can be simulated too.

Trying on their £50,000 headset and entering their virtual world of experiments is a distinctive experience. The graphics are only cartoon-basic and there’s a thumb-thick tether of cables trailing from the back of the headset. However, you can definitely imagine people getting swept up in the moment and forgetting the rest of the Lab is even there.

“We do lots of experiments with objects presented on tables and we always have a real table in the room so that the edge of it is a real thing. Without that, people would just be falling over and hurting themselves. After a while, the sensation is quite real for participants,“ Bester adds.

The promise of VR

So where do they see the big challenges on the horizon? In the hardware? In the audience? Is there going to be an appetite to wear a full-body suit or have a rig motion capture bolted to the ceiling?

It’s clearly something the Professor has given a great deal of thought.

“How useful a lot of this stuff will be is an issue,” he says. “Technology is often developed without people necessarily having a need to use it, but that is absolutely critical. You need to develop systems that people are going to feel comfortable using and that isn’t necessarily a system that would be the highest tech in every case.”

“The technology has now caught up with all the promises that have been made over the last 20 years or so,” Bester adds. “You’ll soon be seeing low-cost immersive headsets coming out. For instance, Microsoft is releasing the Windows 10 VR headset later this year. The quality of the processing hardware has also improved so much that you can now update high resolution worlds very quickly.”

“I think we are going to see a step change. As soon as the costs come down, you will get a lot more people developing much more interesting virtual environments. In a few years time, we could be having this entire conversation in one.”

Virtual reality’s future

So where do they think virtual reality will be in 2020?

“Not much further than it is now,” the Professor replies, which I’ve got to admit is a surprise. “Rendering is the big hurdle,” he elaborates. “At the moment, it’s incredibly time-consuming to programme entire virtual environments. But imagine if rendering could become a bit more automated, to the point where you just get somebody to move their head around an environment and it’s automatically rendered. We’re a million miles from being able to do that today, but if we could start on part of that journey…”

“I don’t think the technology is going to be much different,” Bester agrees. “But I think awareness of virtual reality is really going to ramp up when low-cost headsets come onto the market. Customers may start demanding it. Viewing a car in VR before they buy it, for example. Companies like Land Rover are already doing that and work is being done on virtual showrooms.”

3D VR Headset - what is it doing to our brains?

The final word – for now

Inevitably, The Matrix is mentioned. “I’d like to see something that you just put in the back of your neck and it takes over…” Bester says. It occurs to me that if someone ever did invent that kind of technology, the team here would happily charge in with screwdrivers akimbo.

“In my view, reality will always beat virtual reality,” the Professor says, once we’ve cracked all the obvious jokes. “But that’s not to say that VR doesn’t have fantastic functions and uses.

“In the future, virtual reality is clearly going to revolutionise how we learn about the world. It will be fantastic to be able to appreciate what somebody else is experiencing by taking their visual imprint and having what’s almost a real-time version of their experience.

“People who have never experienced VR before in the Lab initially report a sense of slight disappointment. The visual quality doesn’t match up with the science fiction they’ve seen. But, after a couple of minutes moving around the virtual world, they get a real buzz out of it. They find the experience quite exciting”.

This is an abridged version of the feature ‘Behind the Light Fantastic’ that originally appeared in The Gadget Show Guide, published by Dialogue. It’s available here.