The fu­ture of VR? US re­searchers may hold the an­swer

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

MIN­NEAPO­LIS, Min­nesota — At the Mall of US’ are­na­sized Smaaash amuse­ment ar­cade, peo­ple wait in line to slip on head­sets that re­sem­ble blacked-out ski gog­gles and spend a cou­ple of min­utes feel­ing trans­ported.

They ex­pe­ri­ence the sen­sa­tions of fly­ing a jet in com­bat, res­cu­ing a kit­ten about to fall from a sky­scraper or loop­ing in cir­cles on a roller coaster.

Not far away, the mall’s Best Buy car­ries a range of con­sumer-level vir­tual-re­al­ity equip­ment. Sales­peo­ple ex­plain how VR works, how it feels and how you might make it a part of your home entertainment col­lec­tion.

For years VR has been hyped as the next revo­lu­tion in com­put­ing tech­nol­ogy. Tech­nol­ogy gi­ants are in­vest­ing heav­ily in its fu­ture.

But there’s one big ob­sta­cle still in the way: It makes large por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion — es­pe­cially women and chil­dren — sick.

Mo­tion sick­ness linked to phys­i­cal move­ment has been a fact of life for cen­turies. But re­cent years have seen a dra­matic in­crease in phys­i­cal un­ease caused by in­ter­ac­tive vis­ual tech­nolo­gies. It’s caused by the per­cep­tual dis­con­nect as our eyes process vivid images of move­ment that are out of sync with what our bod­ies feel.

If VR is ever go­ing to reach its much bal­ly­hooed po­ten­tial, Min­nesota likely will play a ma­jor role. Two re­search projects — one at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota and the other at the Mayo Clinic — are fo­cused on com­bat­ing VR-in­duced nau­sea.

With­out such a break­through, it’s un­likely that masses of peo­ple are go­ing to hand over their hard-earned money for VR.

“Why would any­one pay $600 for some­thing that makes you toss your cook­ies?” asks Thomas Stof­fre­gen, a pro­fes­sor in the Univer­sity of Min­nesota School of Ki­ne­si­ol­ogy who stud­ies how peo­ple be­come spa­tially dis­ori­ented and phys­i­cally ill by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­u­lated mo­tion in vir­tual re­al­ity.

Con­sumers who ex­pect the man­u­fac­tur­ers to find a fix are go­ing to have a long wait, he says.

“The com­pa­nies that are mak­ing these are not fac­ing that prob­lem at all. When you buy one of these de­vices, it comes with an in­struc­tion sheet, and down at the bot­tom of it there’s a le­gal dis­claimer that says, ‘You may get sick play­ing this game.’

“That’s their ap­proach to it,” he says. “They’re not mak­ing de­sign changes based on it, they’re just mak­ing le­gal li­a­bil­ity changes.”

Other po­ten­tial so­lu­tions are ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing, how­ever. Mayo Clinic re­searchers have de­vel­oped a method us­ing elec­trodes at the fore­head, ears and neck to trick a user’s in­ner ear into per­ceiv­ing mo­tion syn­chro­nized with move­ments in the vis­ual field.

It’s cur­rently be­ing used to help mil­i­tary pi­lots avoid nau­sea and has been li­censed to the Los An­ge­les-based en­ter- tain­ment vMo­cion.

While there haven’t been any ap­proaches from the tech com­pa­nies, Sam­sung cre­ated a sim­i­lar elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion ap­pli­ca­tion of its own.

The Smaaash ar­cade deals with the mo­tion-sick­ness is­sue di­rectly. In front of each VR sim­u­la­tor are large signs de­tail­ing pos­si­ble side ef­fects tech­nol­ogy firm and pro­hibit­ing use of the de­vice by peo­ple with ver­tigo, heart trou­ble, high blood pres­sure, back, neck or bone in­jury, re­cent surgery or ill­ness, mo­tion sick­ness or preg­nancy.

The ar­cade re­quires cus­tomers to be buck­led into a teth­ered safety har­ness to pre­vent tum­bling from the vir­tual precipice to the lit­eral floor.

Wide­spread pub­lic ex­po­sure to vir­tual-re­al­ity equip­ment is a re­cent devel­op­ment, but the tech­nol­ogy has been un­der con­sid­er­a­tion long enough to drive ex­ten­sive aca­demic re­search.

Since 1990, Stof­fre­gen has ex­plored the ef­fects of VR mo­tion sick­ness on hun­dreds of vol­un­teers rang­ing in age from 10 to 75.

He’s found that the risk of neg­a­tive bod­ily re­ac­tions varies across hard­ware and across games. Typ­i­cally, 30 to 60 per­cent of the vol­un­teers felt VR sick­ness within 30 min­utes or less.

As with un­sta­ble phys­i­cal mo­tion in the real world, women are far more sus­cep­ti­ble to VR mo­tion sick­ness than are men.

Tech­nol­ogy evolves end­lessly, and im­proved VR gear even­tu­ally might cure the ail­ment it has cre­ated. The prod­ucts on the mar­ket to­day could turn out to be only VR at the pro­to­type stage of devel­op­ment.

Stof­fre­gen is wor­ried that if re­searchers can’t solve these prob­lems, lawyers might have to.

Tech vi­sion­ar­ies pre­dict that VR will move be­yond so­cial me­dia and entertainment ap­pli­ca­tions into im­mer­sive work­place func­tions.

If so, Stof­fre­gen warns that sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved de­sign and pro­gram­ming will be nec­es­sary to avoid em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits.

If VR sick­ness af­fected only vol­un­tary gamers, it would be a triv­ial mat­ter, he says, but mak­ing it an em­ploy­ment is­sue shouldn’t be ig­nored.

Since women are more sus­cep­ti­ble than men to VR’s bal­ance-dis­rupt­ing ef­fects, Stof­fre­gen be­lieves us­ing VR in busi­ness would rep­re­sent sex dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“If you’re dis­ad­van­tag­ing 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, you’d like to think there are some con­se­quences.”

TNS

Vir­tual re­al­ity has been hyped for years as the next revo­lu­tion in com­put­ing tech­nol­ogy.

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