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Virtual Reality's Big Problem: Maintaining Presence

By Wesley Fenlon

Experts Weigh in on the Challenges of Immersive VR.

Just last month we wrote about a study on one of the major obstacles still standing between awesome technology like the Oculus Rift and truly immersive virtual reality: How the brain determines its sense of place. Then there are the challenging technical issues we've talked about with Oculus, challenges they're working hard to overcome--by upgrading the Rift to a 1080p display, for example. And there are technical issues for perfect, utterly convincing VR that could require very expensive hardware to solve, as we heard from Valve at this year's Game Developers Conference.

On Tuesday, The Atlantic posted a great feature examining the challenge of "presence" in virtual reality. The feature offers a historical perspective--keeping players immersed in a virtual environment was the key challenge for VR 20 years ago, just as it is today. The way the brain reacts to its spatial environment may continue to be a problem for long-term immersion in a virtual environment. But for short-term gaming sessions, you brain needs to buy in just enough to retain that feeling of presence.

The Omni treadmill is one new piece of technology available at a reasonable price to consumers, and movement in VR is one of the key pieces left to be implemented. The Atlantic also brings up the WizDish, a similar project, which just hit Kickstarter. It uses a simpler, smaller pad and a pair of studded shoes to simulate walking. And there's also the VirtuSphere, a 10-foot-diameter sphere that totally encloses a VR player.

The philosophy behind all three devices is similar: if you simplify a virtual experience enough, your brain may accept it as feeling real, even if it's not completely convinced you're actually inside a video game. One of the most interesting comments also comes at VR from a rarely talked about perspective: Sound.

Writes The Atlantic:

" '[Presence] is very fragile,' Sébastien Kuntz, founder of software firm 'i'm in VR,' said to me, explaining his conservatism regarding the current renewed interest in VR as an entertainment platform. Kuntz mentions several kinds of technology which he says come close to improving VR but which, in the end, might actually cause a break in presence more often than not because they haven't been designed thoughtfully enough.

"For example, he cites the frequent lack of interest in developing effective soundtracks for VR apps. 'If the sound is really great you don't have to have to [worry about creating] better graphics because the senses compensate one another,' he says. He adds that achieving photorealism within the virtual environment is not necessary when inducing a sense of presence, a handful of key senses just need to be stimulated in the right way.' "

The rest of the article digs deeper into the social implications of VR and how we may react to it once presence is maintained--give it a read if you're still anxiously waiting for the Oculus Rift to blow your mind.