Why Virtual Reality is used by perceptional & coginitve scientists

We humans perceive the world, move about in it and interact with it with seeming effortlessness. In order to find out how we actually manage that, perception researchers design sophisticated experiments.

For example, when scientists wish to know more about the sense of orientation, they develop an experiment in which the participants must orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. In doing so, scientists are often confronted with a dilemma: for investigating the sense of orientation under realistic conditions, the natural environment would be the most desirable, but in a natural environment some emerging environmental factors cannot be controlled – for example, the weather, or the course of a road. To create a balance between realism and experimental control, perception researchers have in recent years turned to virtual reality (VR), because it enables experiments under precisely controllable stimulus conditions in a closed loop of perception and action.With these types of experiments every action that follows a stimulus can itself, in turn, have effects upon the stimulus, as is most often the case in real life. Research in VR offers the opportunity to precisely document such interaction cycles and change them in a targeted manner. This allows conclusions regarding what impact stimulus changes may have, both on the perception and on the behavior that results from it.

An entire building for VR

In order to take maximum advantage of VR technology's potential, the MPI for Biological Cybernetics has been expanded by one additional building, the Cyberneum. It is equipped with several state-of-the-art setups including motion simulators, tracking systems, and giant treadmills. Treadmills, for example, make it possible for the virtual worlds to apparently become real and, above all, completely traversable as the user now can walk through the environments. These virtual worlds are visualized through projections on screens or with special glasses, so-called Head-Mounted Displays (HMD). The impression of being in another world is intensified even further through the blacking out of the visible real environment by the displays. The role of the tracking systems' many cameras is to ascertain the position of the moving user at any given time, and to place them in relation to the virtually seen world. The previously mentioned questions on spatial perception and spatial orientation, for example, are investigated in such setups. In contrast, various types of motion simulators togethe with the display, allow the dissociation between one's own felt movement on the one hand and one’s own seen movement on the other. Thus the sense of balance and the visual sense can be investigated independently of one another, which in turn can provide clues about how the incoming information is represented in our brains. These motion simulators also offer the possibility of testing and training driving and flight maneuvers safely.

New type of scanner brings virtual doppelgängers to life

A further area of application is work with avatars, that is, virtual humans that can be moved and manipulated. It is now possible to create highly realistic avatars with the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems' self-developed 4D whole body scanner that allows the scanning of a persons’ 3D shape even when they are in movement. These images can, for example, then be changed in weight and proportion, and thus suggest a new bodily image for a test person. Among other purposes, this is used to help people who have a distorted perception of their own bodies, such as anorexia patients.

VR – tomorrow's reality

In VR experiments are conducted that are much too dangerous for reality, or simply impossible outside of the virtual realm. Hardware and software represent the only limitations, but with every new generation of end products, virtual worlds come closer to their models. Better resolution, and faster and more accurate synchronization of the visualizations on screen with the user's head movement, make the experience near perfect even today. And since Facebook recently acquired the startup company Oculus, which made headlines with affordable VR eyeglasses, the subject VR has arrived in the mainstream. Virtual Reality is on its way into the household, since the hardware, which until a couple of years ago still cost thousands of Euros, can now be ordered for several hundred Euros. The research at both the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and the MPI for Intelligent Systems will provide important impulses in the coming years not only through the use of VR, but also in its further development.

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