Virtual speed confuses the senses

Virtual reality tricks our senses. This is why it can have negative side effects, such as nausea. For virtual reality to best serve us, we must first determine what level of sensory conflict is acceptable.

Virtual reality, or VR, is on the brink of a major breakthrough. The near future of our entertainment will be full of 3D effects and movie scenes with 360-degree camera rotation. Finland and many other countries are in the midst of a VR boom, rife with visionaries and startups.

And not for the first time: virtual reality has been claimed to be on the verge of mainstream success since the virtual headsets of the 1990s – and even earlier.

“The breakthrough of VR is not just dependent on how amazing the technology is, but on how comfortable it is to use," says Jukka Häkkinen, psychology researcher.

Humans continue to pose the biggest problems and challenges in virtual reality.

“In a few decades, virtual reality devices may be completely different, but the human eye and sensory system will not have changed at all,” states Professor Takashi Kawai from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan.

Professor Kawai is a pioneer of VR user ergonomics, and he is currently on a one-year visit to the University of Helsinki. Together with Häkkinen, he intends to study what benefits can be gleaned from VR and how to prevent virtual reality sickness.

VR goggles can cause nausea, dizziness, disorientation and eye strain in some users. These unpleasant symptoms are caused by the mechanisms through which humans observe the world.

Häkkinen and Kawai are observational psychologists, and they have both studied stereo vision in particular depth. This background in basic research has provided them with an excellent foundation on which to build their study of virtual reality.

“Vision researchers are highly sought after in many companies, but they don’t know it themselves. Meanwhile, companies don’t know that Finland has many experts in this field,” Häkkinen points out.

45 DEGREES / Cyber dizziness strikes when different types of sensory input conflict in a major way. In films and games, virtual reality goggles can create a feeling of careening through three-dimensional space at high speed. Simultaneously, the vestibular system in the inner ear tells us that we are standing stock still.

According to what is known as the “poison theory”, the discomfort is the result of the brain being accustomed to certain things correlating, and when they don’t, it assumes something must be horribly wrong.

The exact reason for the dizziness is not known, but it can be alleviated. Static frameworks could be built in virtual reality, to link it to the real world. In rapid motion, the system could black out the edges of the field of vision.

“Dramatic movement generates nausea specifically in the areas of peripheral vision. Few feel nauseous at the cinema, even if the screen is full of wild motion," Häkkinen explains.

According to him, research should carefully survey the specific movements that cause particularly severe discomfort in the virtual world and then instruct content producers to avoid them.

“Instead of turning a full 180 degrees, we could only turn 45,” Häkkinen suggests.

On the other hand, as the nausea becomes less intense, so does the immersion in the virtual experience.

“The sensory conflict is always present in the 3D experience, because the intention is to make people feel like they are in a different environment. However, we still have a lot to study in terms of finding the level of acceptable sensory conflict," Kawai states.

CONFLICT AND STRAIN / Eye strain with virtual goggles is also caused by a sensory conflict. The human eye uses two separate focusing systems. In convergence, tiny muscles turn the entire eyeball either askew or straight, depending on how close the object we want to look at is. In accommodation, other tiny muscles flatten the lens when we are looking far away, or make it a more spherical shape when we are looking at something close.

The organs of our visual system are used to having both accommodation and convergence focus on the same point.

“This is not the case in a 3D image. Convergence focuses on the illusionary image, but accommodation focuses on the screen. This conflict puts strain on the eyes,” Häkkinen explains.

The 2010 film Moomins and the Comet Chase is the first feature-length 3D film to be made in Finland – or in any of the Nordic countries. The filmmakers used episodes from The Moomins, a 2D-animated series produced in Poland between 1978 and 1982. The images were newly 3D-modelled by the Finnish company Stereoscape.

Kawai worked closely in the film’s production process.

“I optimised the distance the 3D characters should be from the screen to create the desired effect without causing too much eye strain,” he explains.

CHEAP AND CHEERFUL / Takashi Kawai has worked for several major corporations, including Sony, Canon, Toshiba and several Hollywood studies, to examine the ergonomic experience of virtual content. For virtual reality to make its big mainstream breakthrough, consumers must be offered cheap, simple applications alongside the high-end solutions.

Kawai holds up a cardboard case with 3D lenses which can house a smartphone. Users can play 3D YouTube videos on the smartphone’s screen, or download an application which can show them live concerts by a Japanese rock band as a 360 video. The smartphone's motion sensors sense the movement and tilt the virtual view accordingly.

Cardboard VR is cheap and easy, but it works. The phone app and cardboard headset have been bundled with a rock album in Japan, and have already sold approximately 70,000 units.

CIRCUS AND DRAMA / Jukka Häkkinen is no stranger to the business world. In the 2000s, he worked for several years at the Nokia Research Centre in Ruoholahti alongside his academic career.

Häkkinen built a sight laboratory measuring test subject reactions to Nokia’s wearable virtual reality displays and other display technologies. He determined ways to minimise eye strain and make the user experience as pleasant as possible.

When he returned to the University, Häkkinen brought a new research area with him: virtual reality.

VR technology is changing and developing at a rapid pace. What hopes do the two researchers hold for the future?

“Right now there’s a lot of hype. There’s a risk that virtual films will be full of gimmicky circus tricks. I hope filmmakers will also dare to create serious drama,” Häkkinen says.

Kawai continues, “In the worst case scenario, a viewer can be completely alienated from the real world and just stay in bed with a headset. We should try to avoid this by creating more social, active virtual technology that requires the user to move.”

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/06/16 issue of Yliopisto magazine.