Life in the illusion

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Feel the dizzying mountain heights as a freeclimber. Soar like an eagle over Paris. Or stand on the bridge of the Enterprise as Captain: Out of reality into the virtual world!
Virtual reality is created when the computer fools the human brain and immerses a person in a world that seems real but isn’t. In recent years, VR – short for virtual reality – has been touted as one of the most promising technologies in the entertainment and research industry, but also in the field of education. Virtual reality isn’t anything new, however. The first applications for game consoles were already around in the 1990s.
Embodiment illusion

Today’s VR technology is ever more successful at getting the user to forget for a time that what they see is not real. Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher, calls this phenomenon the “embodiment illusion” or “localization illusion”. It touches upon a philosophical discourse that goes back to Plato but extends up through the ever-new findings from brain research about the construction of reality by our minds.

“Our perception is a fantasy that is in harmony with reality”, according to Philipp Sterzer, perception psychologist at the Charité Hospital of Berlin. The fascination for VR stems from this – on its face – supposed contradiction: Virtual reality is not just a dream.

Can’t wait for post-Pong in VR?

For a long time, the gaming industry was the key driver in the development of virtual worlds. And indeed there are now a variety of sophisticated and affordable headsets and goggles, videos, games and apps that allow for immersion into computer-simulated worlds. Despite all the hype, still no massive breakthrough has been achieved, even with all these solutions.

VR experts often compare the situation with the development of computer games in the 1970s. It was only with the video game “Pong” that the “Golden Age of Arcade Games” was ushered in. So, in the case of VR, we are waiting for the big success to come on the heals of baby steps.

A kick for gamers, an opportunity for education

The computer game industry isn’t the only place that could benefit from the possibilities opened up by VR technology. Museums allow visitors to take walking tours of ancient sites, for example, and gain architectural insights that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Physicians learn surgical techniques in simulated environments. Medicine students at the University of Maryland use this technique to learn how to insert a catheter.

In the UK, students at the Paramedic Clinical Simulation Centre use their VR suite to simulate emergencies. This way they can experience the complications and the uncertainties that come along with extreme situations, like a simulated fire in a nightclub. Among other things, self-confidence and communication skills for such scenarios are built up in the immersive VR suite for later use in real emergencies.

Quo vadis virtual reality?

One prerequisite for VR training is that the students don’t get ill. Motion sickness is an important topic right now in the context of VR, especially with VR computer games. It occurs because the brain is perceiving motion visually, but the inner ear, which is responsible for registering bodily movement, tells the body it’s standing still. Some effects of these contradictory signals can be vomiting, dizziness or difficulties orienting oneself in real space once the VR goggles come off.

This is certainly one reason to wonder how many people will actually want to soar above the Eiffel Tower, or whether students will actually discover human anatomy better through VR simulation. One thing is for sure: VR already is opening up many new perspectives on the world today.

Important terms briefly explained

In psychology, flow describes a condition, an internal reflection-free immersing and sinking into an activity that is perceived as pleasant and leads to satisfaction. This can happen when riding a motorcycle, reading or engaging in discussion. The flow state comes about very quickly in computer games, because one receives powerful stimulation at the optical, acoustic and emotional levels all at the same time.
This term describes an effect of virtual reality whereby the user’s conscious awareness of being in VR recedes so far back that the user feels that their virtual surroundings are suddenly real. The better a virtual reality is crafted, the easier it is for a user to feel immersed in this world and forget the real world around her.
In connection with virtual reality, the precise terms are simulation sickness or VR sickness. Its onset occurs with the use of simulators or VR headsets. The cause lies in the artificial locomotion in the virtual world, which upsets the body’s sense of its physical presence. Both sensations should be in harmony, and motion sickness comes when they’re not. Contradictory signals are being sent to the brain from the visual cortex on the one hand and the inner ear on the other. This prompts the brain to take countermeasures, which are experienced as dizziness, nausea or the sweats. These are warning signals to the body. The message: Get out of the “dangerous” situation!
To provide immersion in virtual reality, VR goggles are required. These provide a three-dimensional image and allow for 360-degree tracking of head motion. The goggle wearer’s head movements are recorded with the help of an external 3d camera and synchronously display the game environment or the computer generated surroundings in the goggles.
Read more in the dossier “Digital games”
/mediabase/img/4038.jpg Computer games are an integral part of our everyday life today. They have become an important defining medium. Digital games
/mediabase/img/3772.jpg Teachtoday spoke with psychologist Daniel Jäger about the difficult classification of forms of addiction and the digital world. Daniel Jäger in interview

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