GamesBeat: Have we figured out at this point what makes people sick in VR, and why, and what it does to your brain? We’re not a medical panel, but is this a solved problem?
Falstein: We were discussing this earlier. When I saw the presentation yesterday from the magician [Stephen Macknik], he was showing how magic works through distraction. Because this is a neuroscience-oriented audience, I love that he puts up a diagram showing how you’re focused on something, and the neurons receiving that image have other neurons that suppress the input from other areas. It’s not only that your brain highlights the thing you’re focused on, but it’s also turning off everything else. That’s why you don’t see things happening around you when you concentrate on one thing very intently.
That struck a chord. I’m sure many of you have seen tunneling come up as a way to solve the motion problem in VR, where you contract the vision to a very small circle and either blur or blacken what surrounds it. Then, you can move that section over quite quickly. Unlike moving everything in VR, which feels very disconcerting, it’s more comfortable. Then, it zooms back out. When I first heard this described to me, I thought it sounded terrible, but every time I’ve seen it in action, it felt totally natural. I’m realizing that it mimics what those neurons are doing. We suppress everything else, and you naturally have this feeling that you’re looking at that one spot of your own volition. Much like directors learn to draw your attention to things as a way to get around that problem.
GamesBeat: Eagle Flight was a game where you could move very fast, flying through Paris, but you didn’t have as much of that peripheral vision problem because they blurred all that out. Blurring it also reduced how much processing they had to do. It’s not as hard to render. It’s high speed, so it’s fun, but you still don’t throw up.
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Falstein: When we get eye tracking built into headsets, that will mean that you won’t have to render the entire scene in full detail. When you know exactly where people are looking, you’ll only have to render that part of the view. That’ll be a huge win as well.
Akmal: I like to think of that technique. We always talk about VR breaking the frame and bringing new immersion into the world. This is like putting the frame back in. The Heist, one of the first PlayStation VR launch titles, had a chase sequence when you were in a pickup truck. You can’t see behind the truck, but you can look ahead. There’s a frame. Even though you’re flying down the freeway, it reduced the motion sickness you’d normally have if you were in, say, a convertible, because your view frame is limited. With Eagle Flight, Ubisoft got that just right.
GamesBeat: Theresa, your second VR game was Ascension VR, and that had a physiological aspect. Can you tell us about that game and why you made it?
Duringer: One of the reasons I was working on this game was I wanted to make a game that would help with my fear of flying. I had noticed on a previous game I had made that it helped when I took it on a flight — when I was in VR, it replaced the sensation of being on a plane with something more pleasant that could distract me.
I worked on this game Ascension VR, and I felt like — after making it and reaching such high notes, I still felt like I did have a fear of flying that I hadn’t fully resolved. But I’m still hammering on it. I’m releasing an expansion that makes the game more difficult, which is helping a bit more. There are a lot of things people can do.
You were mentioning the magician’s trick, the use of distraction. Going back to my studies in psychology, your brain and your eyes aren’t processing a complete picture of the world. We make up so much of it. The receptors in your eye don’t actually detect color around the periphery of your vision. You just fill that in with assumptions. As VR developers, we can release the fact that we might have to create an entire world, which has huge performance implications, and just focus on the things that we actually need to give to the user in order to have the experience of another world.
Wallace: We’ve seen that people who are predisposed to motion sickness often feel nauseous in VR environments. There have been a lot of experiments with focusing only on forward motion, although that can be very limiting. I also saw a recent spate of articles directed toward consumers, a sort of effort at education. There’s an educational component. Maybe that’s overkill — maybe you don’t want to have to educate your audience. Maybe you just want them to experience whatever you’re making, but there are all these tips and tricks about how to avoid getting sick in a VR environment.
I think there is a level of that novelty where you can raise an audience’s awareness. You don’t necessarily want to have that friction, but I think it goes hand in hand. It reminds me of the early days of photography or the introduction of film. I think we’re at that stage, and it’s very exciting.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of creativity in the way you use this new medium. The Walk is a very interesting demo, where you’re on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. There, you’re really trying to make people uncomfortable, make them feel afraid of the height. It’s trying to create the physiological effect that other games try to suppress.
Akmal: We have a philosophy of trying to create categories of experiences that work with various motion profiles. Certain kinds of experiences work well when you’re walking around or sitting at a desk. For theme parks, we’re looking at what vehicles and machinery — what can you do that, if you tried it at home, might make you sick? We’re trying to work with what physiologically feels good.
Falstein: It’s amazing to see people repurposing old roller coasters and giving you a VR experience that matches the actual motion. If you’re fine with the regular roller coaster, you’ll be fine with the VR version. But instead of the real-world environment, you’re seeing something like Jurassic Park.
Akmal: I usually don’t get motion sick at all, but I’ve tried something like that. It can be pretty taxing. It’s hard to get repeat customers if everyone walks off the ride sick.
Falstein: Every team is finding the one person on the team who’s most susceptible, and they become the guinea pig.
GamesBeat: I remember a speech from Mike Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus. He gave a very interesting keynote at F8 about how good VR quality will have to get before the audience accepts it, likes it, and thinks of it on the same level as reality. They get so immersed that they can’t tell the difference. Just like the magic trick, though, he reminded everyone that the brain is not seeing the world. It sees data coming in that the brain interprets and processes and presents. What that says to me is that we don’t have to get to the point of absolutely perfect graphics. We just have to get to a point where we can fool the brain.
Akmal: Outside of the theme park business, we worked with Stanford to help their law group develop a VR study that put you in — if I’m a white man, it turns me into an African-American woman. You spend five minutes in this experience. The thing they were testing — it’s in peer review right now, but the results look positive — was whether we can reduce implicit bias in a courtroom among jurors and judges.
What was interesting to me as a developer was how important the idea of activating all your senses could be. In this experience, you put on a headset, you see the mirror, and hey, I’m this nice-looking African-American woman. They have you do a bunch of activities like stacking blocks and painting, Tilt Brush style. But [what] made the difference was how they made me use my right hand to touch my left hand. After doing these activities for a while, it felt like this was actually my arm.
Afterwards, they have people look at a crime scene and take an implicit bias test based on who they felt was guilty. Five days later, they come back in and take a slightly modified version of the same test regardless of the graphics, there was a difference, a positive difference in reducing implicit bias, which I thought was really interesting. It didn’t rely on graphics as much as the activities and making use of all your senses.