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The Art of Immersion: Crafting Feedback in Virtual Reality

feedback in vr

With virtual reality, the visuals alone are usually enough to provide a deep sense of immersion.   But what happens when we add more levels of feedback to a VR experience beyond the optical?  How can we deepen the sense of immersion in VR and what different mechanisms for feedback can be deployed now, or imagined in the future?  Also, just because we can include a feedback element, should we?  Does all feedback enhance an experience, or are some invasive to the point of being distracting?  We are going to explore these questions here. 

Feedback in VR

In the realm of video games, haptic feedback has long been a staple. The controller vibrates in response to actions – a subtle cue that bridges the gap between player and game world. Over time, these vibrations have evolved, becoming more nuanced and synchronised with gameplay. From gentle footstep vibrations to thunderous explosions, these tactile sensations go largely unnoticed by players, yet they work wonders in deepening immersion. 

Mersus Technologies produce controller-free VR experiences  where the user’s own hands control the UIs and any interactable elements or objects. We believe the immediacy of being able to use one’s own hands outweighs any benefit we might gain from the haptic potential of using controllers.   Haptics are not currently an element we include in our VR. However, the technology of haptic gloves which produce realistic touch sensations has been around for years.  Haptic gloves are something that we will probably incorporate into a project in the near future.  

In VR, feedback has the potential to blur the lines between the physical and virtual realms. Simple gestures, like preventing virtual hands from passing through solid objects or syncing avatar movements with the user’s own, create a seamless fusion of reality and simulation. When your virtual self mirrors your every move, it’s not just an experience—it’s an extension of yourself in a digital landscape.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of feedback in VR is its role in shaping a new visual language. Just as early cinema pioneers established a cinematic grammar that audiences could instinctively understand, we stand on the precipice of creating a new lexicon of cues and shorthand in the immersive medium. Every signal, every subtle gesture, contributes to this evolving language—a language that speaks directly to our senses, bypassing the need for explanation or translation.  We are at that exciting phase now, where we in the industry get to shape this language, before an agreed common lexicon is developed.  

Integrating smell into virtual reality experiences is an intriguing avenue that holds immense potential for enhancing immersion. Just as feedback through sight and touch can deepen the sense of presence in virtual environments, olfactory feedback has the capacity to further blur the line between the physical and virtual worlds.

Imagine stepping into a virtual forest and being greeted by the earthy scent of pine needles, or exploring a bustling marketplace where the air is thick with the aroma of spices and exotic fruits. These olfactory cues have the power to evoke memories and emotions, adding another layer of richness to the immersive experience.  Of course, I can also think of plenty of game environments I would not like to smell… 

feedback in vr - haptic gloves
A developmental haptic glove -thankfully consumer versions are neater

Whether we consider it an appealing idea or not, the integration of smell into VR comes with its own set of challenges. Unlike sight and touch, which can be simulated through visual and haptic feedback, smell is more complex and difficult to replicate artificially. Moreover, individual olfactory preferences vary greatly among users, making it challenging to create universally appealing scent profiles.   

Despite these challenges, researchers and developers are actively exploring ways to incorporate smell into VR environments. Advances in technology, such as scent-emitting devices and programmable scent cartridges, offer promising avenues for experimentation and innovation in this field. I have actually experienced an experimental VR experience that incorporated scent during a workshop at college.  I must admit, I found the addition of scent somewhat intrusive!   I was also aware that there was going to be an olfactory component to the experience so I was waiting for it, which hampered my sense of immersion slightly.   However, it remains an intriguing concept! 

In the future, as the technology matures and becomes more accessible, we may see smell playing a more prominent role in VR experiences, further enriching the sensory tapestry of virtual worlds. From the sweet scent of flowers in a virtual garden to the acrid smell of smoke in a virtual battlefield, olfactory feedback has the potential to revolutionise the way we perceive and interact with virtual environments. As we continue to push the boundaries of immersion in VR, smell may very well become an essential component of the immersive experience, engaging our senses in new and unexpected ways.

What other types of feedback may be incorporated into VR in the future?  I will let you decide where on the scale from exciting to dystopian all of these fall: 

Temperature Feedback

Imagine feeling the warmth of sunlight on your skin as you explore a virtual beach or the chill of an icy cavern. Temperature feedback could simulate environmental conditions, adding another layer of realism to VR experiences.

Biometric Feedback

Monitoring physiological responses such as heart rate, respiration, and galvanic skin response could provide valuable feedback to adapt the virtual environment in real-time. For example, increasing the intensity of a horror game based on the player’s elevated heart rate or adjusting the pace of a meditation app based on their breathing patterns.

Spatial Feedback

Utilising spatial audio cues or directional haptics could provide feedback based on the user’s position and movement within the virtual environment. This could include subtle vibrations or auditory cues to indicate proximity to objects or boundaries, enhancing spatial awareness and immersion.

Emotional Feedback

Incorporating facial recognition technology or voice analysis to detect the user’s emotional state could dynamically adjust the VR experience to evoke specific emotions or tailor content based on individual preferences. For example, adapting the narrative of a story-driven game based on the player’s emotional reactions.

Customisable Feedback

Giving users the ability to customise their feedback preferences could further personalise the VR experience. This could include adjusting the intensity of haptic feedback, choosing preferred scent profiles, or fine-tuning other sensory inputs to suit individual preferences and sensitivities.

Full-body Feedback

Advancements in motion capture technology could enable full-body feedback, allowing users to feel sensations throughout their entire body. This could involve exoskeletons or wearable devices that provide haptic feedback to simulate physical interactions within the virtual environment.

Multi-sensory Integration

Combining multiple feedback mechanisms to create a truly multi-sensory experience could amplify immersion in VR. For example, synchronising visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory feedback to create a cohesive and immersive sensory experience.

As VR technology continues to advance, so too will the art of crafting feedback. What once seemed like mere vibrations or digital mirroring will evolve into intricate symphonies of sensation, seamlessly blending the physical and virtual realms. And just as audiences once marvelled at the flickering images of early cinema, so too will future generations marvel at the immersive worlds we create—a testament to the power of feedback to transcend the boundaries of reality and ignite the imagination.