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How does VR trick the human brain?

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Speculation about the future of virtual reality — and its promise to reimagine the world around us — has reached fever pitch over the past five years.

But when it comes to the science behind what makes the technology tick, most people are at a loss. For example, how does a VR headset “trick” your brain into thinking that immersive experiences are actually happening? What kind of research goes into the development of VR devices? 

In the Extreme I.T. video series, Lenovo examines some of the facts behind today’s most talked-about tech — all while subjecting expert sources to a series of unconventional trials. In the video above, for example, Betsy Eble, a Senior User Experience Designer at Lenovo, permits herself to be subjected to Fear Factor-style torture, lying encased in a glass cage while various creepy-crawlies squirm and squiggle all around her.

So, can your brain tell the difference between a real-life scare and a VR-simulated experience? We spoke with Eble to delve further into the science that underpins this buzzworthy technology.

The DL on VR

There’s a lot going on in your brain as it interacts with the world around you — things like accessing old memories and simultaneously storing new ones, and responding to sensory input based on a primal understanding of cause and effect. Virtual reality taps into what your brain thinks it should be seeing, and encourages it to fill in the gaps.

“A lot of work is done on the development side with field of view, resolution, feedback, positional sound, and interactivity to simulate as many of these elements [as they function in real life] as closely as possible,” says Eble. “As long as virtual environments behave the way you would expect them to in the physical world, you will continue to experience virtual reality with no physical side effects such as motion sickness, and the experience will not be broken.”

“There will have to be a shift in behavior before VR makes its way into people’s daily lives.”

Interacting with a new environment in 360-degree video triggers more memory-writing areas of the brain than does simply observing a familiar environment like a room in your home, Eble explains. “This, to me, supports the old adage about memory: We remember [about] 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear … and 80 percent of what we personally experience,” she says. “This becomes especially interesting when you think about … mapping virtual elements into the physical world.”

In Eble’s own experience, this theory about memory has held true: She still remembers every virtual item she interacted with during her first experience with a VR system . “My brain now remembers that space with the virtual elements I placed in it,” she says. 

“As a UX designer, that makes the experience-creation even more exciting and crucial,” she adds.

Adults, says Eble, also seem better able to immerse into VR worlds while maintaining the basic rules of physicality — a grown man or woman will be able to stand in one area and use a controller to manipulate their way through a virtual environment, while a child might take off running around the room. The child’s brain in this instance is “fully transported” to the VR environment. Lenovo is working at the forefront of this issue, too, designing tech such as the Lenovo Mirage Solo VR, a relatively affordable device at $400, which opens up the world of virtual classroom instruction like never before

When will VR become everyday tech?

As for why we haven’t yet seen the “VR boom” that’s been touted in tech publications since circa 2012, Eble chalks it up to a few common barriers to entry — but none of them, she thinks, are insurmountable.

One impediment to widespread VR adoption is the cost of hardware and the number of devices on the market; only die-hard techies seem to want to take the leap and invest in a device that may not ultimately “make it” as the top consumer system of choice. The second issue, Eble explains, is that VR content isn’t yet up to snuff for use cases that go beyond gaming. “As far as productivity tools or time I would normally spend on my phone or laptop, there are not currently a lot of VR options,” she says.

Lastly and perhaps most significantly, people have become accustomed to devoting only a small portion of their attention to any one task. It’s possible to scroll mindlessly through your Newsfeed on a smartphone, but you can always break away to answer an email or hold a side conversation in the process. That type of multitasking isn’t available in VR.

“There will have to be a shift in behavior before VR makes its way into people’s daily lives,” says Eble. “I envision the proliferation of AR applications on phones first. With the augmentation of daily activities like maps/directions, virtual information that makes your life easier will begin to [manifest].”

The use cases for VR on a more niche basis are promising. Eble believes there is major potential for VR environments to become a key piece of training and learning environments in the workplace. New-hire training, visualizing warehouse storage layouts, streamlining manufacturing plants, and connecting consumers to retailers by letting them virtually experiment with products are all current uses for VR, although they have yet to hit the mainstream. Eble also notes that there’s been significant progress in VR in the therapeutic space for things like pain/phobia reduction and treatment for conditions like PTSD.

Unlike the experience of being stuck in a glass case full of reptiles — to which Eble appears lukewarm, to say the least — she encourages people to give VR a go. 

“Most people do not believe the experience is going to be as transformative as it actually is,” she says. “It is the greatest joy to putting someone in gear for the first time and watch them laugh out loud or engage their whole body within minutes of being inside an experience. I would have to say, if you haven’t tried VR, give it a chance! You will be surprised about how fun and engaging it can be.”

Don’t be “tech basic”—to see more Extreme I.T. madness and find the answers to your biggest tech questions, click here

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