Virtual reality: Immersion


If the virtual reality ever makes it into the gaming industry, it would definitely be using devices, which interact with our vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Without those it will be impossible to immerse into the digital world so that it could be perceived as real. Roughly speaking, the task of such devices will be to deceive human senses and make them believe that digital world is much like the real one. In this article we will have a look at some of the work in progress, which one day may help create a virtual world in addition to our current one.

“I believe the virtual reality technologies will come to life in the next 10 years. First of all, it will affect video games and movies, which will unravel in a completely different way and in a new perspective. It will be a breakthrough, completely changing the entertainment industry and maybe even some of the day-to-day routine. Everything will depend on one’s imagination and, as we all know, humans have no problem with it”.
Russian Federation Ciryl «Kirilloid» Ponomarev, professional World of Tanks player on Russian FederationNatus Vincere 



3-D audio is an essential part of virtual reality. One can’t fully submerge into the virtual world with hollow and unconvincing sound effects. These days no one could be impressed by a stereo sound, but few know that the problem of 3-D audio was once nearly unsolvable. Firstly, it was unclear in which way a stereo sound could be recorded instead of one-channel mono recording. Secondly, even if recorded, no one knew how to then play it back. Both of the issues were resolved by Alan Blumlein (1903-1942), who is also known as a “forgotten genius”. The truth is that he was a modest person and preferred to stay in the background. Thus, his scientific contribution has never received wide publicity and few people know about Alan’s achievements in sound recording.


Blumlein’s idea was to combine two microphones together and thus achieve a stereo effect. This mechanism is still used in recording studios and in the books on audio theory it is referred to as Blumlein Pair. Apart from that, Alan developed a stereo sound reproducing system. He calculated that the dynamics and the listener should be situated in the corners of the equilateral triangle with a leg of 2-4 meters. The result was a clear volumetric sound. Later on, another way of reproduction would be invented and called headphones, however, all elaborations in the sphere were based on Alan’s research.

Blumlein Pair operating principle

These days 3-D sound is immanently accompanying video games and movies, however, this is only a stage of transition, a temporary usage of this technology. With the creation of cheap and efficient VR machines cinematography and gaming industry would most likely seize to exist in a way we know them to. The final and special appliance of the stereo sound can be in enriching a virtual world. Besides, everything is ready for it. Notably, Blumlein himself was looking for his inventions to be used in cinematography. Perhaps, he could not even imagined a separate spot to be reserved in virtual reality for the stereo sound; a world of artificial sounds in a world of artificial graphics, boggling the mind with its believability.   


One of the first records, containing stereo sound (Alan Blumlein can be seen on the scene)




In the first article of the series, we have discussed the first VR Helmet, developed in 1965 by Ivan Sutherland. There are however other interesting ways to affect human vison system. The so called silhouetting system is one of the helmet analogues. The idea behind it is to create a room with screens instead of walls. Being inside this room makes viewers feel like in a virtual world. The first such system was project CAVE, introduced to the world in 1993.

 CAVE system presentation

The main issue with the first prototypes of the system was the right joint angle of the screens, which made the picture look unrealistic on the junctures. Later the problem was solved by remodeling the room and making its shape pentagonal. This allowed for better image smoothing and forming a unified picture.


Modern analogue of the CAVE system


It is suggested that in the distant future contact lenses will replace bulky helmets and expensive projection systems. Development of such lenses has been financed by the military for quite a while, therefore we can expect this technology to get out of the labs and hit the market at some point. We will discuss this issue in detail in the upcoming articles.


Smell, taste and touch


While the imitation of 3-D sound is a solved case and visualization of a digital world boggles the imagination, the senses of smell, taste and touch are not so easy to reproduce. The problem is not only the technical difficulty of imitating a smell, touch or taste, it is also the fact that no two persons feel it the same way. For instance, the same scent can be pleasant to one person, yet disgusting to another. Moreover, adding up several pleasant flavours may still result in a nasty smelling combination. But researchers believe these flaws can be eliminated by creating a device which one could tune to their own taste. They say in the future anyone will not only be able to record and reproduce any scent, but will also be able to send them via the Internet to friends. Needless to say that incorporating smell imitation in the virtual reality will be an easy task in this case.


A smell imitation technology was first attempted in 1960. A special cinema was equipped with plastic tubes, which conveyed a certain scent depending on the screen action. The ad proclaimed: "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!". Viewers however held no brief for the new technology. Time magazine also stated: "Customers will probably agree that the smell they liked best was the one they got during intermission: fresh air”. All of the following attempts to create an “aromatic accompaniment” to the movies failed as well. Nowadays there is some heavy research going on in this area (e.g. there is a smell synthesizer specifically for video games), but we can still only wonder whether this will work.

A video, demonstrating audiovisual virtual reality system, equipped with a smell synthesizer

As for the imitation of flavour, we need to ask first if there is a real need for it. Is there an actual necessity to taste something in a digital world? Essentially, taste imitating technologies may seem useless, however, in the case of absolute immersion into a virtual world, the sense of taste should not be left out of the equation. If your character gets hammered in the jaw, it will logical to taste blood in your mouth. That’s the whole idea of a complete immersion: everything that would happen in a real world, should be simulated virtually. If your character is swimming in the ocean, you should be tasting salty water, and these list many more of such examples. Though, taste imitating devices are more extensively used in medicine.


Electrode, capable of imitating flavours (as can be notices, such devices are difficult to use for a long period of time)


Technology for imitating touch to non-existent objects is even more complicated. The thing is that touch is not only a tactual sensation, it is also a deeper impulse, coming from muscles and sinews. Thus, reproducing this feeling in a virtual reality appears to be a formidable task. This, however, does not stop enthusiastic researchers.


As always, first similar technologies started to appear in secret military labs. Operational flight trainers were able to imitate vibrations (for example, vibrations in the gear stick), thus simulating a real flight. Meanwhile in research laboratories, scientists developed a device of springs and levers, which could push back in a response to the pressure. This allowed to touch digital objects and feel it, though could not transmit the feeling of texture. This issue was then resolved with a light electrostatic effect that imitated a rough surface and cavities. Essentially the technology looked like a thin film, covering the screen, therefore it can only be used with portable devices that have a screen.


A demonstrative example of implementing an electrostatic effect in practice


These days researchers are more interested in transmitting tactual sensations through the phone screen. The idea is that anyone would be able to touch a product from online store be using just a phone. 




The development and improvement of the aforementioned technologies is done by isolated groups of scientists. One team is working on visualization while the second one is configuring “tactual devices”, yet another one is trying to imitate scents and flavours. In the result, all these technologies should be combined into one efficient system. Meanwhile, the virtual reality is predicted to stay merely audiovisual for some time. All the other senses will be integrated into it much later. So, we will still need to use our imagination and fill in the blanks in the perceptual data for a complete immersion into the virtual reality.

In the next article we’ll look at the modern machines, able to create a virtual reality and not limited to output devices
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AuthorP0s1t1v3 Date11 June 2015, 11:36 Views1320 Comments0
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