What makes virtual reality work?

The experience is predicated on the idea that it feels real: Participants are immersed in a virtual place, whether a game, a room where a simulation or role-play is occurring, or a re-created or completely imagined location. For participants to feel that they are actually in that environment, the VR application must create what is called “presence.” What does presence entail?

  • Creating presence requires immersion—an environment that surrounds the participant. While 360-degree photos or video surround a viewer, an immersive environment is different in that it moves along with the person. When viewing a 360-degree image of a residential street, for example, the viewer cannot walk down the street or around the corner. She cannot go up a driveway and knock on the door of a house. In a VR environment, the participant can do these things.
  • A virtual reality environment is interactive in a way that 360-degree video is not. When viewing a 360-degree video of a coral reef, for example, the viewer could watch a school of fish swim by. In an immersive VR environment, the participant could pick up a rock, peer around the back of a plant or coral, and even swim alongside that school of fish.
  • Sounds must “behave” in the virtual environment as they would in a real environment. That means that they become louder or softer if the participant approaches or retreats, they bounce off items like walls or rocks, and they become muffled if the participant is underwater, for instance.
  • Participants must feel as if they have entered the environment. Since their physical bodies cannot enter the virtual environment, they take on an avatar and move through the environment in the avatar’s body. An avatar can look like the participant; alternatively, the avatar can be a recognizable human of a different sex or race, an animal or normally inanimate object, or a completely fantastic imaginary being.
  • Moving through a virtual environment must also feel real. Particularly in VR setups where participants are seated, the sensation of moving through the virtual environment when a participant’s physical body is stationary can cause that participant to feel nausea or other symptoms of motion sickness. Developers are experimenting with tools and techniques to minimize the “disconnect” between the feeling of moving through an environment and the simultaneous physical experience of the body.
  • While in the virtual environment, participants must be able to interact with other characters, whether they are avatars for other participants or completely imagined characters, as in a game or simulation.

How good does it have to be?

Presence is a complex combination of learner participation and environmental effects. The physical appearance of a virtual environment and the objects and characters populating it make up only a small part of the virtual reality experience. It’s possible to create presence in an environment where the computer-generated graphics look like animations or drawings; true-to-life rendering is not essential. But the combination of effects must convince participants’ brains that they are in the environment.

Some developers are working to create virtual environments with tactile or sensory effects like wind, scents, vibration, and lighting changes. In many VR setups, participants hold controls or wear anklets that help guide or render their movement in the environment; in all cases, participants wear headsets that prevent them from seeing anything outside the virtual environment. Some VR participants don “haptic suits” that convey a greater range of sensory feedback than a headset alone, or a headset plus hand controls, can manage. These suits or vests might be able to convey temperature changes, smells, and sensations of touch, wind, or water, and some deliver vibration or mild electric pulses.

Achieving presence requires the willing participation of the learner; a participant must suspend disbelief—that is, believe, at least while immersed in the environment, that impossible and illogical things are plausible.

Even with all the elements lined up—a willing participant, a great virtual environment, the best headset, an engaging story—the virtual experience can be derailed by faulty technology. A fraction of a second’s glitch in rendering the environment as the participant moves through it, a misalignment of sound, an interaction with a character that misses the mark—and it’s all over. Presence is destroyed as the participant’s brain snaps back into the real world.

Want to learn more about presence?

Join us at 2017 Realities360 Conference in San Jose, California, July 26 – 28. There you’ll find dozens of sessions on virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, including: