Most virtual reality experiences that surround you and are in 3D do feel somewhat immersive, but the lack of natural interaction can leave you feeling cut-off. When you feel cut-off you start to become more aware of the rows of screen pixels, just inches from your eyes, or the edges of the display. Whenever you become aware of the real world, you feel even more disconnected.

Using a game controller to move about can add movement as well as the ability to select or shoot what you are looking at, but it does not properly add to the realism as we don’t use a controller to move about in real-life.

After trying a walking VR experience recently, I realised just how important freedom of natural movement was in order to feel really engaged in a virtual world. Such a system can track your movements anywhere in a large room and translate these to accurate positioning in a virtual environment through your head mounted display (HMD). Although you still hold a controller, it is also tracked in 3D and in VR looks like a hand so you soon forget you are holding it. Squeezing a trigger on the controller allows you to grab or select things with your virtual hand, a gesture that is immediately very natural.

Building blocks of immersion

Of all the demos I looked at and walked around in, the most engaging were the ones that gave me the freedom to put things wherever I wanted. One virtual room just had a wall of blocks in the middle, each seemed to be about 40cm high. First I could walk up to the wall and smash it down with my hand, and then I could pick up the blocks (that feel like polystyrene) and make new walls and towers on the floor with them. It was not like Minecraft where the blocks you place are all neatly arranged, it was like real life, where each block was as I placed it. Uneven, but an accurate record of how I wanted each one. I fashioned a kind of arch from the blocks and managed to step through it without knocking it over, I was immersed. I had forgotten the pixels, the headset and the controller a long time ago.

Tracking hands is clearly a priority for headset developers right now, however when it comes to walking VR, the HTC Vive is really the only consumer headset that will allow this straight out of the box. For a lot of VR applications like gaming, walking about in real-life is not critical as you can just end up bumping into things and you often need to traverse much greater distances than you would want to walk anyway.

Nevertheless, matching your body movements in the real world to the virtual world passes an important cue to the brain that what you are experiencing is really happening.

Losing yourself in VR

While low latency and high frame rates are still critical for believability, resolution, field of view and foveated rendering are far less critical than a lot of articles are currently making out. If we only concentrate on improving the technology and graphics and not the the freedom to interact as we wish, we will always feel somewhat disconnected. On the other hand, if we can be engrossed, if we can explore, create and break things that stay where we want them, we allow our ideas to shape a new world, a world we can lose ourselves in and want to revisit, despite the other limitations.

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