Virtual reality is entering a new era of touch-sensitive tiles and immersive animations. Researchers in Barcelona have created a unique space at the cutting edge of digital immersion.
Paul Verschure is an ICREA Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University: “We built the experience induction machine as part of the PRESENCCIA project to understand how humans can exist in physical and virtual environments.” It may look like a fun diversion, but the experience induction machine is the result of some fundamental scientific research. One of the key challenges was to create a credible virtual environment. To do that Paul’s team had to understand how our brains construct our vision of the world. “Imagine what we see is sort of rapidly jumping about – that would not be a believable experience for us. So that means one thing we have really tried to engineer here also from a psychological perspective is how do I feed this continuity of expectations that our brain is generating about the world. But I don’t only have to do it for myself, for one observer, I have to do it for everybody in this space,” says Verschure. From his base in Barcelona Paul is working on human computer interaction with colleagues across Europe. They want to move beyond the simple interface of keyboard, screen and mouse. Moving to Austria, student Petar Horki is controlling a virtual reality system using his mind. He thinks about walking and appears to move – the sensors reacting to activity in his brain. The system could one day help people with disabilities. Petar Horki, Masters student, TU Graz explains, “Actually I’m not doing anything, I’m just imagining I’m doing a brisk foot movement, and by this imagination I can move at least in this virtual room.” The concepts of human scale in a virtual world developed in Barcelona have helped researchers in Austria build this believable environment. Gert Pfurtscheller, Professor, TU Graz – Institute for Knowledge Discovery describes the system further: “The patient has the task to move the wheelchair mentally by using his thoughts. The effect is the same whether the wheelchair actually moves or whether the virtual reality actually moves. Virtual reality is a medium to investigate and test this, that is cheap and not dangerous. “ At his workshops on the other side of Graz Christoph Guger is developing similar tools. Once the sensors are in place the user concentrates on an icon they want as it lights up. Christoph Guger, CEO of g.tec: “For the brain computer interface we attach electrodes to the head to be able to measure brain currents. The task of the person then is to watch the icons flashing in a random sequence and the brain will react to the icon which I want and that response the computer can recognise, and that way we can control external devices.” Each time the icon flashes the brain reacts, and the computer monitors that reaction and then carries out the command. Christoph is able to type words or navigate through a virtual home without lifting a finger. Guger is adamant that the technology could be applied in everyday life. “We have carried out some bigger studies using about 100 people and about 80 percent of people can steer it. To do this we need 5 minutes of personal EEG-data,” he says. Using brain signals to control computers is one side of this European research project, using virtual reality to better understand ourselves is the other. Back in Barcelona volunteer Mar Gonzalez is preparing to be immersed in a virtual bar. “What we’re trying to do is to understand why people behave in a more or less natural way in a virtual reality,” says Mel Slater, PRESENCCIA project coordinator. The 3D goggles and headhones give Mar the impression of really being in the bar. After the experiment Mar said she found the experience very plausible. “The conversation with the waiter, well it really seems like a conversation somehow. You really need to answer him.” Mel believes that our bodies are the key to constructing a believable virtual reality situation. When we interact with a virtual world on a human scale then on some level we believe it to be real. “When you take an immersive virtual environment the way that you perceive what is going on there is just as you do in everyday life, you use your body, you turn your head, you bend down, you reach up for things, you use your body in a natural way,” Slater explains. “When people interact with a virtual world using the same kind of body perceptual mechanisms that you do in reality then at some level the brain can’t but help give you the illusion that you’re in a place and that you’re interacting with objects in this place.” The ideas that Mel is exploring are applied in the experience induction machine, which uses infrared sensors and tracking cameras to ensure a human scale. Paul Verschure sets out one potential use of the system. “Think about architects designing a new building – now groups of architects can come together physically and virtually and they can design and inspect their virtual building.” The room could also be used for gaming, new forms of cinema, or training people for difficult situations. “And the big difference is that I can be physically there, and to be there physically in a scale that is realistic compared to the world in which my brain grew up, which gives you actually the experience as our brain expects it. It’s not this weak derivative anymore, it is very close to what it would be, because now we’re dealing with experience at a scale that is psychologically realistic or believable,” Verschure says. The researchers believe that this system is the future of human computer interaction, and an important step away from current technology.