The Sensory Revolution: Challenges and the Sensory Future of Virtual Reality

Elena Martín-Dorado Lozón

Interaction and Behavioral Design Expert in NTT DATA

Virtual Reality (VR) has burst into our lives with an exciting promise: the ability to transport us to fully immersive virtual worlds. From games and entertainment to applications for the professional, educational, or medical world, VR offers a realm of sensations. Virtual reality challenges our perceptions by harnessing the senses to intensify the experience. From awe to emotion, VR elevates immersion by providing multisensory realism, transforming not only what we see but also what we feel.

In this article, we will explore how virtual reality utilizes sensorial experiences to create reality-defying encounters, which sectors rely most on this aspect, the challenges they face, and how the future of VR unfolds in this realm.

Let's recall that virtual reality is a technology that enables users to immerse themselves in a digitally generated environment and interact with it. This technology plays with the concept of "presence": the sensation of being in a virtual place, incorporating sensations related to:

· Sight, the most obvious.

· Hearing, with volumetric sounds that situate us in that virtual environment.

· Touch, with haptic vibrations from controllers providing feedback on interactions with elements in that virtual reality.

Next, we will delve a bit more into each of these aspects.

Sensorial Immersion in VR

As we mentioned, VR leverages the senses to enhance the feeling of realism, surprising, thrilling, engaging, etc., all from different perspectives.

Visual Experience

The visual experience in virtual reality is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and captivating aspects of this technology. VR devices are designed to cover the user's entire field of vision. This feature allows them to feel completely immersed in a virtual world. 

When we put on a VR headset, the real world disappears, and we find ourselves in a virtual environment. High resolution and cutting-edge graphics make virtual environments and objects so realistic that it's easy to forget they're not real, considering that VR games, applications, and experiences can range from otherworldly dimensions and surreal spaces to exact representations of real places.

Auditory Experience

Virtual reality doesn't limit itself to the visual experience. Spatial audio systems in VR allow users to hear sounds from all directions. This adds an additional layer of immersion, as sounds behave realistically and respond to the user's location and orientation in the virtual world. If something happens behind us in a VR experience, the sound will adjust accordingly, creating an enveloping auditory experience that makes us feel truly at the center of the action.

Touch and Haptics

The sense of touch is a fundamental part of our everyday experiences. Therefore, haptic feedback is essential to add "presence" through this sense. In VR, haptic devices and interfaces, ranging from the controllers of VR headsets to more complex and specialized devices like gloves, vests, bracelets, chairs, and suits, allow users to interact with virtual objects and feel aspects such as texture and pressure. 

Haptic gloves, for example, are equipped with sensors and actuators that apply pressure and vibration to the user's hands. This means you can feel the rain falling on your hands, the rough texture of a virtual wall, or the softness of a virtual object.

Other Aspects Affecting Sensorial Immersion

Interaction Models with the Environment

VR allows users to interact with the virtual environment naturally. VR controllers track hand movements and gestures, enabling intuitive and realistic interaction with virtual objects. This feature adds an extra layer of realism and engagement.

360-Degree Experiences

Virtual experiences allow users to explore their environment from any angle. This creates a sense of presence where users feel they are truly in the represented place, enhancing sensorial immersion.

Improvement of Eye Tracking and Face Tracking Systems

Advanced eye tracking systems (eye tracking) integrated into VR devices not only allow for more agile, precise, and quick interaction by gaze but, together with face tracking systems, contribute realism to interaction with other people in virtual reality, improving social interaction by providing data on eye movements and facial gestures to be replicated in avatars representing us in VR.

These key components of sensory immersion in VR combine to create a world of sensations that challenges reality itself. VR's ability to transport people to incredible visual and auditory environments, coupled with the tactile sensation of interaction, has driven its adoption in various fields, from entertainment and education to medicine and professional simulation. The promise of VR is to take us to places and situations we never imagined, and technology continues to evolve to fulfill that promise.

Sectors Applying Sensory Elements in VR: Their Uses

The versatility of VR has led to its adoption in various industries, with some finding particular value in sensory:

Sensory Immersive Education

Imagine being able to take students on educational journeys beyond the borders of classrooms. VR allows them to visit ancient Rome, explore the depths of the ocean, or travel from outer space into the interior of a cell, all while experiencing complete sensory immersion. This virtual experience makes education more engaging, effective, and memorable.

Medicine and Medical Training

VR has become a valuable tool in medical training and clinical practice. Medical students can practice virtual surgeries in realistic environments, feeling the pressure of surgical instruments and experiencing anatomy in a fully immersive way. For patients, VR is used, for example, in exposure therapy to treat anxiety disorders and phobias, creating safe but realistic environments that trigger emotional responses. Sensory immersion is crucial for the success of these applications.

Sensory Entertainment

In the entertainment world, VR has opened up a range of possibilities to offer exciting sensory experiences. VR games provide adventures that challenge the senses, with stunning graphics, surround sound, and tactile interaction that puts players in the center of the action. VR movies and concerts allow people to enjoy their favorite content in immersive virtual environments, taking entertainment to a completely new level.

Realistic Professional Simulation and Training

From aviation pilots to industrial sector workers, VR is used for training in safe and controlled environments. In pilot training, for example, users experience the sensation of flying through VR cockpits and feel the vibrations and movements of the simulated aircraft. Similarly, in workplace safety training, workers can experience risky situations and practice how to react in these situations from a safe environment.

Source: NAKA. Wind turbine training experience

These examples highlight how VR goes beyond the visual aspect, involving other senses such as hearing and touch to create sensorially immersive and beneficial experiences in a wide variety of applications, thus continuing to expand into multiple sectors. However, VR has not yet solved all challenges, and there are still issues to address.

Challenges and Limitations

While VR offers countless benefits, it is not without challenges, as resolution and simulation of realistic movements and interactions still have a long way to go. 

Additionally, at the sensory level, its main challenge is that some people may experience motion sickness (kinetosis) when using VR, limiting its accessibility. The feeling of dizziness or kinetosis in virtual reality can occur when there is a discrepancy between what is perceived in the virtual environment and the movements perceived by the user's vestibular system (the inner ear system that controls balance and spatial orientation). 

This discrepancy can trigger symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and discomfort. Some common cases in which VR can cause dizziness include:

Motion Lag

When virtual movements do not match the user's real-world movements, as in games where the character moves rapidly while the user remains stationary. 

To reduce this problem, various aspects can be worked on: 

· Implementing the tunneling technique, which involves temporarily reducing the user's peripheral vision while moving or turning in VR. This has the effect of reducing the amount of peripheral visual information, which can help the brain adapt more easily to virtual movements, thus reducing the feeling of dizziness.

· Implementing smoother movement systems, such as gradual transitions and slower perspective changes, to allow the brain to adjust gradually to changes.

Source: NAKA tunneling technique in an airport training experience.

· Integrating motion tracking devices, such as haptic controllers and position tracking systems, so that the user's movements in the real world are reflected more accurately in the virtual world, mitigating this effect.

Low Refresh Rate

If the refresh rate of the headset is low, there may be a lag between real movements and what is displayed in the headset, which can cause dizziness. Ensuring an adequate refresh rate is essential to provide a smooth and natural experience. Most modern devices have higher refresh rates to address this issue.

Intense or Violent Experiences

Intense or violent virtual experiences can cause dizziness due to the disconnect between intense activity in the virtual world and the user's physical inactivity. Therefore, it is advisable to provide configuration options for the intensity of the experience or implement gradual attenuation mechanisms to allow users to acclimate to more intense situations.

The mitigation of kinetosis in virtual reality is an active area of research and development, and technologies and techniques continue to improve to provide more comfortable and enjoyable experiences for all users.

Future of Sensory Elements in Virtual Reality

The future of virtual reality looks exciting and promising, with technological advances promising to take sensory experiences to the next level. In terms of haptic feedback, we can expect even more sophisticated devices that provide precise and convincing tactile sensations. This could include full-body haptic suits that allow users to feel not only the texture of virtual objects but also their temperature and resistance. The sensation of touching virtual objects could become almost indistinguishable from physical reality. Additionally, the evolution of VR controllers could enable more intuitive and natural tactile interaction.

Concerning visual quality, significant improvements in resolution and graphic fidelity are anticipated. Future VR headsets will offer screens with even higher resolutions, leading to more realistic and detailed virtual environments.

For sound, spatial audio will continue to improve, offering a more immersive and accurate auditory experience. Future VR headphones will leverage advanced technologies such as 3D audio capture and environment acoustics simulation. This will make virtual sounds even more realistic and respond more precisely to the user's location and orientation in the virtual space. The integration of artificial intelligence and sound personalization will also allow users to adapt their auditory experiences according to their preferences.

Furthermore, VR continues to evolve, and its combination with other technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence is expected to offer even more impressive experiences where the boundary between the real and the virtual is completely blurred.

In summary, the future of virtual reality leads us to a world of even more immersive and authentic sensations. Haptic devices, visual quality, and sound will continue to improve, bringing VR closer to the fidelity of physical reality and expanding its applicability across various industries, from education and medicine to entertainment and remote collaboration. These advances will not only enrich our sensory experiences but also lead VR to new horizons of adoption and accessibility.

Contact us to experience immersion at NAKA and see firsthand how we use different sensory levers to enhance results and address challenges like motion sickness. We look forward to providing you with a unique experience!

If you want to know about other VR trends that will be present in 2024, read our article.

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