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Virtually messing with our senses

By the time this article goes to print, it is very likely that many readers will have seen Ready Player One, a movie based on the book by Ernest Cline. The book, written in 2011, provided a great yarn, although the Virtual Reality technology that supported the story is still a work in progress. What stands out from Ready Player One is the fact that the general populace who participate in the virtual world, called OASIS, think that it is real and can, in fact, feel it and experience it. And that, as they say, my friends, is the key to Pandora’s box.

When something that is not real becomes real (like the virtual world), then how do we know what is real anymore? If we can fool our own senses, then that kind of turns our world upside down, right? But wait, I hear you say, that was a movie and this… is real life. The ubiquitous question about such movies is always: are they true or can they become so? The answer in this case is, as always, unequivocally yes and also no. Where we are today in terms of technology means that some things in VR can be accomplished, and some can’t. Also, some things may or may not ever be accomplished, which is the beauty of technological progress. In reality, many people in a multitude of countries are working on making VR technology that messes with our senses right now; how many of their inventions will see the light of day is another matter.

Let’s get more specific. What exactly can and can’t you sense in VR today or perhaps in the near future? The obvious response is that you can… see! That might not sound like a big deal, but it is. If you have ever used an immersive rig such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, or spent a little bit of time in AUT’s awesome MOCAP space, you will know that things can get just a little bit real. The experience of immersive VR (as they call it in the trade) is one of being inside a virtual world. It is as if you are really there, teleported into some virtual space, to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time, you know your body is standing in a room that is nothing like the one you are looking at now. Very odd indeed, but also pretty awesome. So what? Vision is easy in VR, I hear you say. Well, in fact, a huge amount of software and technology using light and shadows fools you into thinking that there are solid objects in front of your eyes, so it’s actually rather complex stuff.

So that’s great! You can see! But we have a multitude of other senses: how do we fool all of those? Great question and again, in reply, we can’t – at least not yet. The next sense to discuss is hearing or ‘audio’ for technophiles. Hearing is, of course, easy. Headphones, speakers and enhanced audio that gives the impression of three dimensions of sound are all possible today. Gamers will be completely familiar with audio; it is an integral part of every game. So that is really a no-brainer.

What about, touch? You say. This one’s more difficult. Touch is normally felt through the skin, and your body has quite an extensive amount of that. Most elementary touch technology for VR begins with the hands, since these are attachments that we probably use the most. Devices known as ‘haptic gloves’ are the most common way of conveying touch. (Haptic meaning something that relates to touch, so very apt.) The gloves contain myriads of sensors which can convey sensation in various ways, usually via electrical impulses to your hands and vice versa. Using these you can pick things up in VR and actually feel what you are picking up. The haptic gloves feature heavily in Ready Player One, but I suspect the implication from the film is that they can do more than they actually can. If you had watched the movie, you would also note that the hero went on to acquire a full bodysuit. Thiswould be something like a glove with skin contact for the whole body. Thus, the sensor range extends itself and allows your body to feel things in VR, all over! Yes, both haptic gloves, bodysuits, half bodysuits and so on are already available in various forms. The more expensive ones have more sensors to give the wearer more sensation. So when you are fighting Darth Vader in VR, you can really feel that hit from his light sabre and also perhaps the lightest touch from the fronds of barley, Gladiator style.

In the context of touch, there is obviously the sexual element too. ‘Teledildonics’ (this is exactly what you think it is) have already been invented and are on the market. In layman’s terms, these are sex toys that attach to a computer and can thus be controlled by software, or another person. I will leave the rest to your imagination. In summary, then, we have pretty much covered that one.

What then of smell and taste? Interesting points, and yes, it can be done! Companies are already designing and making VR masks that include the emission of smells, or add-ons to existing headsets that will allow smells to be wafted into the nostrils of the user. These are already being manufactured and will no doubt open up a massive market in the future for invented odours.

However, taste is more difficult. Taste usually implies actually ingesting something, and although taste and smell are very closely linked, they are by no means the same. In saying that, taste is being worked on for VR in all sorts of ways, from strange looking headsets and utensils, to electronic impulses that fool your tongue into thinking you have tasted something. Is that going to work? I have no idea, but the progress of technology indicates that there is every likelihood of workable devices being developed in the future.

Another very important area is Kinetic Sense. That is related to movement, body positioning and so forth. Anyone who has used VR at all will know that movement can be limited, and you can’t just run around wherever you want to. Also, moving the VR environment without your body also moving can make you feel sick. Many devices have been invented to overcome these limitations; treadmills for walking, cradles to help you feel as if you are flying and more.

Combining all of this sensory apparatus together means that now and in the future VR can become a consummate sensory experience. However, the big question remains: is it worth it if we have to put on all this paraphernalia every time we want to come to the VR party? Well, that is for you to decide because the progress of technology is unstoppable and will roll on no matter what. As of now, we are standing at the edge of an infinite wasteland where simulation may just be about to conquer reality. “Welcome to the desert of the real” – those immortal words of the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, most famously uttered by the character Morpheus in the movie The Matrix, were never more fitting.

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