Virtual reality continues to blur the line between the physical and the digital, and it will change our lives forever.
- Extended reality technologies — which include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality — have long captivated the public imagination, but have yet to become mainstream.
- Extended reality technologies are quickly becoming better and cheaper, suggesting they may soon become part of daily life.
- Over the long term, these technologies may usher in the "mirror world" — a digital layer "map" that lies atop the physical world and enables us to interact with internet-based technologies more seamlessly than ever.
What will the Disneyland of the future look like? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Immersive technology aims to overlay a digital layer of experience atop everyday reality, changing how we interact with everything from medicine to entertainment. What that future will look like is anyone's guess. But what's certain is that immersive technology is on the rise.
The extended reality (XR) industry — which includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), which involves both virtual and physical spaces — is projected to grow from $43 billion in 2020 to $333 billion by 2025, according to a recent market forecast. Much of that growth will be driven by consumer technologies, such as VR video games, which are projected to be worth more than $90 billion by 2027, and AR glasses, which Apple and Facebook are currently developing.
But other sectors are adopting immersive technologies, too. A 2020 survey found that 91 percent of businesses are currently using some form of XR or plan to use it in the future. The range of XR applications seems endless: Boeing technicians use AR when installing wiring in airplanes. H&R Block service representatives use VR to boost their on-the-phone soft skills. And KFC developed an escape-room VR game to train employees how to make fried chicken.
XR applications not only train and entertain; they also have the unique ability to transform how people perceive familiar spaces. Take theme parks, which are using immersive technology to add a new experiential layer to their existing rides, such as roller coasters where riders wear VR headsets. Some parks, like China's $1.5 billion VR Star Theme Park, don't have physical rides at all.
One of the most novel innovations in theme parks is Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attraction, which has multiple versions: physical locations in California and Florida and a near-identical virtual replica within the "Tales from the Galaxy's Edge" VR game.
"That's really the first instance of anything like this that's ever been done, where you can get a deeper dive, and a somewhat different view, of the same location by exploring its digital counterpart," game designer Michael Libby told Freethink.
Libby now runs Worldbuildr, a company that uses game-engine software to prototype theme park attractions before construction begins. The prototypes provide a real-time VR preview of everything riders will experience during the ride. It begs the question: considering that VR technology is constantly improving, will there come a point when there's no need for the physical ride at all?
Maybe. But probably not anytime soon.
"I think we're more than a few minutes from the future of VR," Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan told the Washington Post in 2020. "Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that."
It could take years for XR to become mainstream. But that growth period is likely to be a brief chapter in the long history of XR technologies.
The evolution of immersive technology
The first crude example of XR technology came in 1838 when the English scientist Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, a device through which people could view two images of the same scene but portrayed at slightly different angles, creating the illusion of depth and solidity. Yet it took another century before anything resembling our modern conception of immersive technology struck the popular imagination.
In 1935, the science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a short story called "Pygmalion's Spectacles," which describes a pair of goggles that enables one to perceive "a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."
The 1950s and 1960s saw some bold and crude forays into XR, such as the Sensorama, which was dubbed an "experience theater" that featured a movie screen complemented by fan-generated wind, a motional chair, and a machine that produced scents. There was also the Telesphere Mask, which packed most of the same features but in the form of a headset designed presciently similar to modern models.
The first functional AR device came in 1968 with Ivan Sutherland's The Sword of Damocles, a heavy headset through which viewers could see basic shapes and structures overlaid on the room around them. The 1980s brought interactive VR systems featuring goggles and gloves, like NASA's Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), which let astronauts control robots from a distance using hand and finger movements.
1980's Virtual Reality - NASA Video youtu.be
That same technology led to new XR devices in the gaming industry, like Nintendo's Power Glove and Virtual Boy. But despite a ton of hype over XR in the 1980s and 1990s, these flashy products failed to sell. The technology was too clunky and costly.
In 2012, the gaming industry saw a more successful run at immersive technology when Oculus VR raised $2.5 million on Kickstarter to develop a VR headset. Unlike previous headsets, the Oculus model offered a 90-degree field of view, was priced reasonably, and relied on a personal computer for processing power.
In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, and the following years brought a wave of new VR products from companies like Sony, Valve, and HTC. The most recent market evolution has been toward standalone wireless VR headsets that don't require a computer, like the Oculus Quest 2, which last year received five times as many preorders as its predecessor did in 2019.
Also notable about the Oculus Quest 2 is its price: $299 — $100 cheaper than the first version. For years, market experts have said cost is the primary barrier to adoption of VR; the Valve Index headset, for example, starts at $999, and that price doesn't include the cost of games, which can cost $60 a piece. But as hardware gets better and prices get cheaper, immersive technology might become a staple in homes and industry.
Advancing XR technologies
Over the short term, it's unclear whether the recent wave of interest in XR technologies is just hype. But there's reason to think it's not. In addition to surging sales of VR devices and games, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook's heavy investments into XR suggests there's plenty of space into which these technologies could grow.
A report from The Information published in March found that roughly 20 percent of Facebook personnel work in the company's AR/VR division called Facebook Reality Labs, which is "developing all the technologies needed to enable breakthrough AR glasses and VR headsets, including optics and displays, computer vision, audio, graphics, brain-computer interface, haptic interaction."
What would "breakthroughs" in XR technologies look like? It's unclear exactly what Facebook has in mind, but there are some well-known points of friction that the industry is working to overcome. For example, locomotion is a longstanding problem in VR games. Sure, some advanced systems — that is, ones that cost far more than $300 — include treadmill-like devices on which you move through the virtual world by walking, running, or tilting your center of gravity.
But for the consumer-grade devices, the options are currently limited to using a joystick, walking in place, leaning forward, or pointing and teleporting. (There's also these electronic boots that keep you in place as you walk, for what it's worth.) These solutions usually work fine, but they produce an inherent sensory contradiction: Your avatar is moving through the virtual world but your body remains still. The locomotion problem is why most VR games don't require swift character movements and why designers often compensate by having the player sit in a cockpit or otherwise limiting the game environment to a confined space.
For AR, one key hurdle is fine-tuning the technology to ensure that the virtual content you see through, say, a pair of smart glasses is optically consistent with physical objects and spaces. Currently, AR often appears clunky, unrooted from the real world. Incorporating LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) into AR devices may do the trick. The futurist Bernard Marr elaborated on his blog:
"[LIDAR] is essentially used to create a 3D map of surroundings, which can seriously boost a device's AR capabilities. It can provide a sense of depth to AR creations — instead of them looking like a flat graphic. It also allows for occlusion, which is where any real physical object located in front of the AR object should, obviously, block the view of it — for example, people's legs blocking out a Pokémon GO character on the street."
Another broad technological upgrade to XR technologies, especially AR, is likely to be 5G, which will boost the transmission rate of wireless data over networks.
"The adoption of 5G will make a difference in terms of new types of content being able to be viewed by more people." Irena Cronin, CEO of Infinite Retina, a research and advisory firm that helps companies implement spatial computing technologies, said in a 2020 XR survey report. "5G is going to make a difference for more sophisticated, heavy content being viewed live when needed by businesses."
Beyond technological hurdles, the AR sector still has to answer some more abstract questions on the consumer side: From a comfort and style perspective, do people really want to walk around wearing smart glasses or other wearable AR tech? (The failure of Google Glass suggests people were not quite ready to in 2014.) What is the value proposition of AR for consumers? How will companies handle the ethical dilemmas associated with AR technology, such as data privacy, motion sickness, and the potential safety hazards created by tinkering with how users see, say, a busy intersection?
Despite the hurdles, it seems likely that the XR industry will steadily — if clumsily — continue to improve these technologies, weaving them into more aspects of our personal and professional lives. The proof is in your pocket: Smartphones can already run AR applications that let you see prehistoric creatures, true-to-size IKEA furniture in your living room, navigation directions overlaid on real streets, paintings at the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit, and, of course, Pokémon. So, what's next?
The future of immersive experiences
When COVID-19 struck, it not only brought a surge in sales of XR devices and applications but also made a case for rethinking how workers interact in physical spaces. Zoom calls quickly became the norm for office jobs. But for some, prolonged video calls became annoying and exhausting; the term "Zoom fatigue" caught on and was even researched in a 2021 study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior.
The VR company Spatial offered an alternative to Zoom. Instead of talking to 2D images of coworkers on a screen, Spatial virtually recreates office environments where workers — more specifically, their avatars — can talk and interact. The experience isn't perfect: your avatar, which is created by uploading a photo of yourself, looks a bit awkward, as do the body movements. But the experience is good enough to challenge the idea that working in a physical office is worth the trouble.
Cyberspace illustrationtampatra via Adobe Stock
That's probably the most relatable example of an immersive environment people may soon encounter. But the future is wide open. Immersive environments may also be used on a wide scale to:
- Conduct job interviews, potentially with gender- and race-neutral avatars to eliminate possibilities of discriminatory hiring practices
- Ease chronic pain
- Help people overcome phobias through exposure therapy
- Train surgeons to conduct complex procedures, which may be especially beneficial to doctors in nations with weaker healthcare systems
- Prepare inmates for release into society
- Educate students, particularly in ways that cut down on distractions
- Enable people to go on virtual dates
But the biggest transformation XR technologies are likely to bring us is a high-fidelity connection to the "mirror world." The mirror world is essentially a 1:1 digital map of our world, created by the fusion of all the data collected through satellite imagery, cameras, and other modeling techniques. It already exists in crude form. For example, if you were needing directions on the street, you could open Google Maps AR, point your camera in a certain direction, and your screen will show you that Main Street is 223 feet in front of you. But the mirror world will likely become far more sophisticated than that.
Through the looking glass of AR devices, the outside world could be transformed in any number of ways. Maybe you are hiking through the woods and you notice a rare flower; you could leave a digital note suspended in the air so the next passerby can check it out. Maybe you encounter something like an Amazon Echo in public and, instead of it looking like a cylindrical tube, it appears as an avatar. You could be touring Dresden in Germany and choose to see a flashback representation of how the city looked after the bombings of WWII. You might also run into your friends — in digital avatar form — at the local bar.
Of course, this future poses no shortage of troubling aspects, ranging from privacy, pollution from virtual advertisements, and the currently impossible-to-answer psychological consequences of creating such an immersive environment. But despite all the uncertainties, the foundations of the mirror world are being built today.
As for what may lie beyond it? Ivan Sutherland, the creator of The Sword of Damocles, once described his idea of an "ultimate" immersive display:
"...a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked."
Virtual tourism has thus far been a futuristic dream, but a world shaped by Covid-19 may be ready to accept it.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the travel and tourism industries;
- Businesses in this sector must build infrastructure and practices that allow people to travel safely in a post-pandemic world and support local communities that benefit from tourism;
- Augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies can offer alternative ways to travel the world and an exciting new model for the industry.
The tourism industry has hit a nadir owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will continue to feel the effects for at least the first three quarters of 2021 – according to a recent UN report, tourist arrivals globally in January 2021 were down 87% when compared to January 2020.
Travel will prevail over post-pandemic anxiety, making it incumbent on the aviation and tourism industry to build safer infrastructure and practices that take care of travellers' well being.
After a year thwarted by the pandemic and with the future not looking too upbeat for the industry at this juncture, tourism business owners should look at alternative modes of interaction for holidaymakers that can also aid the people and economies who depend on tourism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has noticeably hastened the testing and rollout of forward-looking technologies. Technology has not only enabled citizens globally to interact with loved ones, but also helped industries such as healthcare, information technology, education and many more to work remotely.
In the last few decades, technology has helped travel and tourism industries increase their reach through travel booking websites, videos, blogs and travel photography. Digital tools and content are a vital source of information for vacationists organizing their next holiday or creating a destination wish list. Whilst remote or virtual tourism has been a futuristic theme within industry forums for some time, the world today, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, might now be ready to accept it.
A human-centric design that draws insights from cognitive behaviour, social psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics applied with cutting edge technologies such as augmented, virtual or mixed reality (AR, VR, MR) could be a game-changer. AR, VR and MR can enable a seamless, uninterrupted interactive experience for viewers from their own private space. The design principles will create a frictionless digital user experience and construct a positive perception of a tourist destination.
There have been previous attempts to achieve this feat: if you are an aqua sightseer, you might be aware of a documentary exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Through an interactive website, one can view the clear, tranquil currents of the Pacific Ocean and the biodiversity of the reef, and experience the sounds of a healthy coral reef. Another much-discussed VR experience is Mission 828 which allows you to take a virtual parachute jump from the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Official Tourist Board of the Faroe Islands has also crafted a virtual experience to entice post-pandemic visitors from across the world.
Imagine a human-centric designed, interactive space online that makes a destination accessible and so real for a sightseer with sound captured by electro-acoustics researchers. You could view holiday sites in a video or through self-navigation using voice or joystick controls, interact with people using video-calling platforms, travel through the streets of said location, eavesdrop on local music and much more. This could be stitched together in a single platform individually or in silos on the internet and further enhanced by setting up physical experience tourism centres locally. Such a setup would allow tourist guides, artisans, craftspeople, hoteliers and transport business to create their own digital and virtual offerings and interact with possible customers.
Here's how it might look: a vacationer starts their experience from the time their flight commences. The plane descends to the destination runway and pictures of the vicinity from the aircraft window pane are captured. The airport signage welcomes passengers and directs them to a pre-booked taxi. The vacationer gets to choose their first destination and travels through the streets in a chauffeur-driven car whose interactions en route become part of their cherished memories. On arrival, a tourist guide walks you through the destination all controlled with just a tap on your gadget. During the sightseeing, you hear random people speaking, posing for photographs and more. You take a photo to post on social media, go shopping and negotiate with a local vendor to purchase an artwork and get it delivered to your door. You learn how a local dish is prepared and get familiar with local customs.
A virtual platform could even provide an opportunity for people to explore areas that are affected by or fighting terrorism. For example, imagine seeing the diverse wildlife and snow leopard of the Gurez Valley, in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It doesn't stop there: if thought through, one could experience travelling to the South Pole, space and beyond. It could also serve as a learning portal for students to understand geographies, culture, art and history.
With technology improving lives globally, virtual tourism could reignite the tourism industry and its people and help build a more sustainable economic model. As a human-centric platform, it can establish local tourist guides, artisans and others as global citizens in the tourism industry.
A famous thought experiment from the 1970s is more relevant today than ever before.
- Philosopher Robert Nozick asked if we would rather live in the real world or inside a virtual reality machine of never-ending pleasure.
- Frederich Nietzsche asked if truth is really the greatest virtue.
- People seem to be hard-wired to want the truth, no matter how brutal or unpleasant.
The year is 2045, and an eccentric billionaire has revealed to the world an incredible new invention. It's called the "experience machine," and it's an utterly immersive virtual reality device. It provides multi-sensory stimulation with such sophistication and depth that it's effectively indistinguishable from real life. At a press of a button, the machine can give you constant pleasure of any kind. Mansions, fast cars, scoring a Super Bowl touchdown, winning the London marathon, ruling the Mughal Empire, never-ending orgasms — whatever you want.
The question is, if you had only two choices, would you live life in the experience machine or in the world as it is?
Who wants to ride the pleasure machine?
This is the thought experiment presented by philosopher Robert Nozick. It was designed to show the limitations of "hedonism," that is, the idea that humans are solely, or primarily, motivated to seek pleasure above all else. Nozick's own conclusion was that very few people would choose to live a life of constant pleasure so long as it was fake. No matter the perks of virtual reality, most of us would choose reality, warts and all. Hard truths over easy lies. Brute facts more than frothy fictions.
I suspect that most people would be deeply bothered living in a fake world, no matter how pleasurable it was.
Nozick's original experience machine was dreamed up in the 1970s, but it's only now that technology is turning his idea into a potential reality. We still have a way to go until we have the level of immersion Nozick envisioned, but it's near enough to make the question pertinent.
When gaming or VR becomes more exciting and brilliant — if we can spend hours of our life immersed in a world of dragons or starships or just an idealized version of reality — would people bother with the real world? Why spend all that energy and endure all those hardships in a difficult world when a life of simple pleasure is just a VR headset away?
More than half a century on, is Nozick still right to say that most of us would choose reality over VR?
Why virtual reality is necessary on a planet of 11 billion | Big Think www.youtube.com
Is truth the greatest virtue?
The experience machine raises another important consideration: why do we care about truth or reality in the first place? We might be inclined to say that it's simply a natural condition of being human, that we dislike being duped or lied to, and that we're biologically wired to seek answers and truth. Or, we might say that it's entirely cultural and ebbs and flows as societies change. It might be, for instance, that in a world of fake news and alternative facts, that generations simply start to care less about "truth" and value another metric — pleasure, perhaps — above that.
One philosopher who didn't quite understand the obsession with "truth" was Friedrich Nietzsche. In the first chapter of his Beyond Good and Evil, titled "The Prejudice of Philosophers," Nietzsche asks us to consider what it is about truth and certainty that is admirable or worthy in itself. He writes:
"Of all the value which may belong to the true, the positive, and the unselfish, it might be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life generally should be assigned to pretense, to the will to delusion, to selfishness, and cupidity."
It's a provocative and challenging question. If someone says to us, "But that's not true!" or, "She's a liar!" Nietzsche is there to reply, "So what?" In his unique and iconoclastic style, Nietzsche frames the pursuit of truth as an unfounded, ungrounded obsession or fixation. There's nothing about the essence of truth that means it must be the highest of all virtues or placed at the top of the podium.
Could VR be the death of reality?
Despite Nietzsche, and despite a century of propaganda and media manipulation, people do still care about reality. I suspect that most people would be deeply bothered living in a fake world, no matter how pleasurable it was. Something sticks in the craw when we're being lied to or when things aren't real.
A virtual reality boyfriend or girlfriend still seems to count for less than a real one. Watching a flock of birds move across a setting sun against snow-tipped mountains is more significant when it's not a pre-recorded movie reel. Reproducing a virtual version of a loved one who has died still would not take away the grief or sense of loss.
The fact is that truth does matter. But, with virtual reality becoming a mainstay, and whole generations of people spending hours in virtual environments, who's to say that it will always be this way?
A new study calls the technique "location spoofing."
Research indicates that "deepfake geography," or realistic but fake images of real places, could become a growing problem.
For example, a fire in Central Park seems to appear as a smoke plume and a line of flames in a satellite image. In another, colorful lights on Diwali night in India, seen from space, seem to show widespread fireworks activity.
Both images exemplify what the new study calls "location spoofing." The photos—created by different people, for different purposes—are fake but look like genuine images of real places.
So, using satellite photos of three cities and drawing upon methods used to manipulate video and audio files, a team of researchers set out to identify new ways of detecting fake satellite photos, warn of the dangers of falsified geospatial data, and call for a system of geographic fact-checking.
"This isn't just Photoshopping things. It's making data look uncannily realistic," says Bo Zhao, assistant professor of geography at the University of Washington and lead author of the study in the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science. "The techniques are already there. We're just trying to expose the possibility of using the same techniques, and of the need to develop a coping strategy for it."
Putting lies on the map
As Zhao and his coauthors point out, fake locations and other inaccuracies have been part of mapmaking since ancient times. That's due in part to the very nature of translating real-life locations to map form, as no map can capture a place exactly as it is. But some inaccuracies in maps are spoofs that the mapmakers created. The term "paper towns" describes discreetly placed fake cities, mountains, rivers, or other features on a map to prevent copyright infringement.
For example, on the more lighthearted end of the spectrum, an official Michigan Department of Transportation highway map in the 1970s included the fictional cities of "Beatosu and "Goblu," a play on "Beat OSU" and "Go Blue," because the then-head of the department wanted to give a shout-out to his alma mater while protecting the copyright of the map.
But with the prevalence of geographic information systems, Google Earth, and other satellite imaging systems, location spoofing involves far greater sophistication, researchers say, and carries with it more risks. In 2019, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the organization charged with supplying maps and analyzing satellite images for the US Department of Defense, implied that AI-manipulated satellite images can be a severe national security threat.
Tacoma, Seattle, Beijing
To study how satellite images can be faked, Zhao and his team turned to an AI framework that has been used in manipulating other types of digital files. When applied to the field of mapping, the algorithm essentially learns the characteristics of satellite images from an urban area, then generates a deepfake image by feeding the characteristics of the learned satellite image characteristics onto a different base map—similar to how popular image filters can map the features of a human face onto a cat.
Next, the researchers combined maps and satellite images from three cities—Tacoma, Seattle, and Beijing—to compare features and create new images of one city, drawn from the characteristics of the other two. They designated Tacoma their "base map" city and then explored how geographic features and urban structures of Seattle (similar in topography and land use) and Beijing (different in both) could be incorporated to produce deepfake images of Tacoma.
In the example below, a Tacoma neighborhood is shown in mapping software (top left) and in a satellite image (top right). The subsequent deepfake satellite images of the same neighborhood reflect the visual patterns of Seattle and Beijing. Low-rise buildings and greenery mark the "Seattle-ized" version of Tacoma on the bottom left, while Beijing's taller buildings, which AI matched to the building structures in the Tacoma image, cast shadows—hence the dark appearance of the structures in the image on the bottom right. Yet in both, the road networks and building locations are similar.
These are maps and satellite images, real and fake, of one Tacoma neighborhood. The top left shows an image from mapping software, and the top right is an actual satellite image of the neighborhood. The bottom two panels are simulated satellite images of the neighborhood.Zhao et al., 2021, Cartography and Geographic Information Science
The untrained eye may have difficulty detecting the differences between real and fake, the researchers point out. A casual viewer might attribute the colors and shadows simply to poor image quality. To try to identify a "fake," researchers homed in on more technical aspects of image processing, such as color histograms and frequency and spatial domains.
Could 'location spoofing' prove useful?
Some simulated satellite imagery can serve a purpose, Zhao says, especially when representing geographic areas over periods of time to, say, understand urban sprawl or climate change. There may be a location for which there are no images for a certain period of time in the past, or in forecasting the future, so creating new images based on existing ones—and clearly identifying them as simulations—could fill in the gaps and help provide perspective.
The study's goal was not to show that it's possible to falsify geospatial data, Zhao says. Rather, the authors hope to learn how to detect fake images so that geographers can begin to develop the data literacy tools, similar to today's fact-checking services, for public benefit.
"As technology continues to evolve, this study aims to encourage more holistic understanding of geographic data and information, so that we can demystify the question of absolute reliability of satellite images or other geospatial data," Zhao says. "We also want to develop more future-oriented thinking in order to take countermeasures such as fact-checking when necessary," he says.
Coauthors of the study are from the University of Washington, Oregon State University, and Binghamton University.
Ever lose track of time while doing something? It gets worse with a VR headset on.
- Gamers often report losing track of time while playing, but virtual reality headsets amplify this effect.
- Test subjects using headsets were off by an average 28.5 percent more than those using a typical screen.
- A potential application of this finding is using it to help people endure difficult medical procedures, such as chemotherapy.
Whenever we're immersed in something, time goes by quickly. This is a particularly common occurrence for people who play video games. Glancing up at the clock, gamers are surprised by how many hours have vanished.
This phenomenon has a name: time compression. And a new study on it shows that the effect is greatly amplified for people using virtual reality.
Let's do the time warp again
A screen shot of the maze game used in the study. Notice the reminder to stop playing when time is up. Citation: Timing & Time Perception 2021; 10.1163/22134468-bja10034
The participants, all college students getting credit for participation, were asked to play a game either using a typical computer screen or by using an Oculus Rift VR headset. The game was a simple maze activity. Players tried to tilt a maze (such as the one seen above) to move a ball to the gold block at the end. Guiding the ball into a hole would cause the level to reset. They were asked to estimate when five minutes had passed and to stop playing at that time. Observers in the next room recorded how long it actually took.
After playing on their first device, players were asked to switch to the other where they repeated the experiment.
The study initially involved 41 participants, though two of them provided estimates that were so incredibly bonkers that they had to be excluded. (Perhaps these two wandered into a mental wormhole?) Those playing the game with the headset estimated that five minutes (300 seconds) had elapsed after an average of 327.4 seconds; those playing on a monitor estimated that five minutes elapsed after 254.8 seconds, a difference of 72.6 seconds.
Interestingly, this time compression only occurred when participants played using the VR headset first. This may have been because those who used the monitor first were better able to judge the length of time having already played it on a regular screen.
Let's do the time warp again
Why does time compression occur? One possibility is that being totally immersed within a VR environment prevents a person from observing their own body. Bodily awareness appears to be linked to accurate time perception, and people in a VR environment are deprived of this awareness. Thus, their perception of time becomes warped.
The researchers' findings have important implications, especially for gamers as VR becomes more popular:
"Time compression might cause VR users to unintentionally spend excessive amounts of time in games, especially as [head-mounted displays] become more comfortable to wear for long sessions. Even non-immersive games entail some risk of addiction, which has been associated with depression and insomnia (Kuss & Griffiths, 2012). VR games may pose a greater risk of interfering with their players' sleep schedules, mood, and health by reducing their ability to notice the passage of time. Developers should take care not to create virtual 'casinos'; a clock should always be easily accessible, and perhaps even appear automatically at regular intervals"
On a more positive note, the study reinforces the findings of a previous one showing that patients undergoing chemotherapy sessions while using VR headsets also reported time compression effects. Other research shows that VR is a surprisingly effective painkiller through the power of distraction.
In the future, VR won't just be for video gamers. It could play an important role in medicine and patient care.