Your Nose Could Be the Bridge Between Virtual Reality and Real Life

The answer to virtual reality’s biggest pitfall may be right in front of our noses.

Purdue University computer graphics professor David Whittinghill and a team of colleagues wanted to see if adding a virtual nose to the bottom corner of a VR demo would help participants avoid “simulator sickness,” a common side effect of playing VR games. The research was presented this week at a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The Purdue researchers divided 43 undergraduates into two groups. One group played unmodified demos on Oculus Rift kits, a consumer virtual reality device. The other group had a virtual nose placed in the middle of their Oculus field of view. The second group lasted an average of 94.2 seconds longer in a simulated walkthrough of a Tuscan villa before feeling sick, and lasted an average of 2.2 seconds longer in a roller coaster simulation. They also reported 13 to 14 percent less discomfort overall.

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Whittinghall's team added a virtual nose to the game screen to see if it would alleviate nausea.

Here’s Kyle Orland, writing for ArsTechnica:

Surprisingly, Whittinghill said, none of the 20 subjects that went through the demos with the nose actually noticed that it was there until they were told by researchers after the fact. Whittinghill theorized this might be due to the “change blindness phenomenon” that leads our perceptual systems to filter out visual information that doesn’t change over time. Since the virtual nose is projected so close to the face, and in the corner of the peripheral vision, the visual signal of the nose barely changes even as your eye naturally wobbles and darts around the screen. Yet the reduced nausea results suggest there’s some value to having the nose there, even if it’s not being consciously perceived.

Which led me to wonder, if virtual noses prevent nausea in virtual reality, could our real noses help prevent us from getting sick in real life? It’s not likely, says Steven Rauch, chief of the vestibular division of otolaryngology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “Balance gets diverse inputs,” he said. “We didn’t evolve to have noses so that we could watch video games.”

In other words, it’s not a single point of reference that prevents us from getting nauseous. The visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems all combine to create our sense of balance. But problems arise when there’s a disconnect between what you expect to experience, and what you actually experience along these three dimensions. That’s why you’re more likely to feel sick as a passenger in a vehicle rather than as the driver: the driver’s experience is linked to his or her real-time, visceral expectations. A phenomenon called “vection” is another example—the feeling of being unsure as to whether you’re moving or the world around you is moving. What saves us is our ability to disambiguate through multiple sensory inputs, Rauch said.

Virtual reality headsets offer an extreme example of vection. Oculus Rift is such an intense visual simulation that it’s hard to tell if you or the world is moving—the tension between your expectations and your actual experience is more pronounced. “Your visual system is desperate for a field of reference,” Whittinghill said.

“If I turn my head, all my senses are in agreement,” Rauch said. “But when you put on VR goggles, what you see is moving, but your ears say, ‘I’m not moving.’ The [virtual] nose is a subliminal visual cue that says, ‘I’m still, the world is moving.’ ” Rauch suggests that if the researchers put eyeglasses in the video game field of view, you’d see very similar results.

Before exploring other options, though, Whittinghall’s team wants to develop the technology to build 3D models of individual noses in order to personalize the experience and see whether or not that reduces nausea or discomfort even more. They also hope to incorporate floating particles like snow or rain in the gamer’s field of view, and examine how that influences simulator sickness. It may be that different arrangements of static versus moving images could help virtual reality evolve into something usable for reality.