The problem with VR is that we’re stupid human meatsacks with too many senses


Virtual reality may feel like a new technology given its recent surge in popularity, but depending on how pedantic you’re feeling it’s either been around for about 20 years with VR arcade machines like the Virtuality, or about 50 if you’re willing to include Morton Heilig’s Sensorama. And yet it still isn’t quite the cornucopia of dreams that we want it to be. 

The allure of VR is obvious; you get to strap on a headset and you’re instantly transported to another world, usually one that you’d never be able to visit otherwise. Samsung has summed it up pretty well with the tagline to their recent adverts for the GearVR: “Do what you can’t”.

And to a certain extent VR can deliver on that promise. Yeah, you can fly an X-wing. Yeah, you can fight the undead horde. And yeah, you can sit courtside at that NBA game you could never afford in real life. 

But for those of us that have been lucky enough to experience the technical marvel that is a modern VR headset, there is a dirty niggling secret at the back of your mind. Something always feels like it’s missing. You know you aren’t actually there. 

There are games where you use controls to move around, and some of them are incredibly effective, but as your eyes are being given the data that you’re moving when your body is telling your brain it’s staying still, you can be hit with a motion sickness like no other. 

Out of sight, out of mind

And this is basically an issue of input; one of your senses being told something that doesn’t match up with what your other senses are being told. And once you realize that VR only really caters for two senses, that dissonance is a real issue. 

You might be thinking that two out of five isn’t bad, and if you are, you’re one of the millions of people fooled into thinking that we only have five senses. You actually have more. And, no, we’re not talking about ‘I see dead people’ senses.  

Yeah you have the five big hitters, but you also have a sense of temperature, a sense of time, a sense of direction, a sense of proprioception (where your body is in space) and a whole host of others that frankly don’t tie into this piece so we’re not going to talk about here. 

Funnily, Morton Heilig’s Sensorama 50 years ago catered to more of our senses than modern VR does. It was a booth that you sat in, that vibrated, blew wind at you, and had scents for the environments that you were experiencing. 

But what is the solution to this sensory deprivation in VR?

There are some pretty interesting devices that are currently being made that (whether they know it or not) are the descendent of the Sensorama, trying to make VR a more comprehensive sensory experience. 

Some are amazing, some are terrifying, some are hilarious. Here we have collected a few of our favorites for your sensory pleasure.

Birdly

Without doubt, one of our favorite things that VR has enabled us to do is fly. Or simulate the experience of flying at least. But there is something about physically feeling like you are just, you know, stood there, that does rob some of the joy from the experience. 

We tried the Birdly…bird simulator to see if it could help us live out that fantasy of being an eagle, swooping majestically over a San Francisco skyline. If the feeling of flight is supposed to be dignified, getting into it isn’t. 

You clamber onto the device which closely resembles a Transformer’s sex toy, lay prostrate, strap your hands onto the control panels, and slip into the VR headset. 

As soon as the experience starts, the setup is totally worth the payoff. Birdly tilts your entire body down, wind literally blowing in your face as you plummet. You flap your ‘wings’ and you fly up. Words don’t do it justice. 

You don’t ever truly lose the experience of feeling like you’re in two places at once but it’s a great experience. 

Omnidirectional treadmill

Moving through space is definitely an issue in VR. Most of the time you are limited to a space no more than a few meters across, and frankly if you’ve been transported with the magic of VR to an amazing vista, you don’t want to just stand still once you’re there. 

The idea of a treadmill makes sense, as we already use them to replicate human locomotion without actually moving, but the ability to move in any direction poses a mechanical issue. The way a ‘linear’ treadmill works is by having a band that loops eternally under your feet. As soon as you want to deviate from a straight line, the loop no longer works. 

In slides the Virtuix Omni treadmill. The ‘treadmill’ bit is a slight misnomer. It’s not a treadmill like you’ve ever experienced one. It’s more a slippery concave circle covered in sensors. You wear equally slippy shoes, strap yourself in, and then walk, run, or strafe your way through a VR world. Or slip, slip faster, and slip sideways. There’s a reason you’re strapped in.