Blocking Sounds Could Help You Experience VR In a More Immersive Way

Keeping your attention

  • A new study suggests ways to make VR more immersive by blocking sounds. 
  • Experts say maintaining the illusion of realism in VR is difficult.
  • Haptic gloves that provide force feedback to VR users are now available for preorder.
Someone wearing a VR headset and gesturing while sitting at a desk with a laptop computer.

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Virtual reality (VR) is meant to bring you into a digital world, and recent tech innovations could make the experience more immersive. 

A new study proposes that noise-canceling software built into VR headsets could prevent unwanted breaks in users' attention. It's part of an ongoing effort to find ways to make VR a better experience. 

"VR has limitations and sensory disconnects that a human can easily discern," Todd Richmond,  the director of the Tech & Narrative Lab at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an IEEE member, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Providing only visual environments and cues means the other senses (hearing, touch, smell) are likely experiencing something different than what the eyes are seeing. That disconnect—and in more extreme cases, motion sickness—breaks immersion and focus for the user."

Getting Real(er)

VR might not always be as realistic as you want it to be. For example, say the study's authors, immersion was broken by a gust of wind when someone opened the door. 

University of Chicago computer science professor Pedro Lopes, one of the study's authors, told Lifewire via email that the problem of how to keep viewers immersed in the experience isn't unique to VR. For example, he said the film industry has worked on this issue for a long time—the movie theater is an extreme version of how to ensure immersion, a distraction-free and controlled environment. 

Someone using a VR headset in an open space.

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"It is often easy to forget how in most parts of our life we have designed entire buildings to control our environment so that we are focused: for instance, a classroom is an architectural device to provide a distraction-free environment that is conducive to immersion in learning, just as the movie theater is conducive to watching the narrative unfold. Early VR was emulating this concept too," Lopes added.   

New Tech for Better VR

New methods of engaging more of your senses can make VR a more immersive experience, experts say. Richmond said better audio (particularly spatial sound) could be a significant factor in helping to avoid "breaking" the user experience.

One approach to better realism is through haptics or force feedback. The company HaptX recently announced preorders for haptics gloves that come with an air-compressing backpack. The backpack pushes air into "hundreds of microfluidic actuators that physically displace your skin," according to the company. 

Even more immersive methods might make your body feel like it's moving in VR. An Oklahoma gaming studio claims to have launched the first public-use VR treadmill. The omnidirectional treadmill synchronizes movements in VR with real-life exercise. 

Richmond noted that "haptics are still limited to mostly force feedback on hand controllers, but having some kind of 'feel' helps the brain stay engaged in the VR experience." Accurate tracking is another "capability that can make or break VR immersion," he said. "Having body movements correlate to appropriate changes in VR space tends to be critical for drawing users in and keeping them engaged."

Lopes and his team have developed a hardware prototype that might be able to keep users enveloped in a virtual experience. It's a small box attached to a VR headset that can detect distractions such as winds and temperature shifts like turning on the AC or a sudden ray of sunshine hitting one's skin. 

"The next steps will be to integrate gas sensors so that smells can be detected or vibration sensors so that sensations such as a person walking around the user can also be detected," he said.

But technology only goes so far, Ryan Harmon, a former Disney Imagineer and current president of Zeitgeist Design + Production, a company that produces real-life immersive experiences such as theme parks, said in an email interview. 

"A great story, environment, characters, sound effects, and music that believably replicates the real world both visually and audibly goes a long way to allowing users to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in a virtual world," he added. "It will be future tech that combines the ability to touch, smell and even taste that will truly create the illusion of existing in another time and place—at that point, why ever leave the house?"

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