Why Controlling Your Perception of Time Might Be Key to Better VR

It’s not always noon in the metaverse

  • A new paper claims that controlling your perception of time in virtual reality could be a way to make it more engaging and realistic. 
  • VR users perceive the passage of time in simulations mainly due to the mental effort they put into using the software, the paper’s authors write. 
  • One expert says that you might feel time pass in VR through visual and audio effects in the future.
An person discussing an architectural project with a group of others in virtual reality.

EvgeniySholenko / Getty Images

The old saying that 'time flies' may also be true in the metaverse. 

According to a new paper, the key to making the metaverse a more realistic experience may be controlling how users perceive time. The authors claim that visual clues about time and fatigue are essential to making virtual reality experiences more engaging. It's part of an ongoing effort to use time perception to make virtual reality more realistic and exciting. 

"When a VR app keeps the user busy, they perceive time as passing quickly," Roderick Kennedy, founder of Simul, a virtual reality software company, told Lifewire in an email interview. "When the user is bored, they perceive it as passing slowly."

Virtual Time

The new paper refutes previous claims that simulating the sun's motion in VR affects time perception—making the user feel that time passes faster if the virtual sun moves faster. Instead, the authors said that the experience in VR affects time perception due to the stresses and mental effort it places on the user. 

Most game engines that are used to render VR have elaborate sky/sun/atmospheric systems to faithfully reproduce time of day and specific geographic location, Todd Bryant, a technologist who has worked on projects including HBO's "Game of Thrones," told Lifewire in an email. 

Often developers want to hide or freeze the passage of time in VR, Bryant said. "In the same way that casinos don't display clocks, developers want VR gaming experiences to exist outside normal space and time and relieve the pressures of time and place that could interrupt gaming," he added. "For other virtual events, VR worlds maintain a perennial time of day that matches the conceptual nature of the experience, for example, a cinematic experience that's always at golden hour, a concert venue that showcases talent in the middle of the night, or fishing simulator at sunrise when the fish are biting the most."

Kennedy pointed out that VR must let users keep track of the real world. Increasingly, VR headsets provide "pass-through"—the user can see what's around them using cameras on the headset, which can be used to warn of obstacles or offer a hybrid virtual environment.

"The tremendous power of VR for altering our perceptions should not be underestimated," he added. "Time could be represented spatially. For example, in a work setting, a block of time for a specific task could be represented by a block of sand being blown away by the wind. This kind of representation could be more tangible to the user than something abstract like a clock, for example."

Your experiences in VR can even affect your perception of time in real life, Alex Fletcher, the VR user experience design lead at the virtual reality platform provider Immerse, told Lifewire via email. 

Someone using a VR headset in an open space.

Oliver Helbig / Getty Images

"Even the most immersive app isn't without limitations, though, as standing experiences will eventually lead to fatigue, and users will start to notice if they have been standing for hours," Fletcher added. "Shorter experiences don't have the same effect, but sometimes this is by design; in training, you may want to indicate the passing of time as part of a process or provide a reference to the real-time for users who are on a tight schedule. In some scenarios, a lot can be shown in a shorter amount of real-time than would be required in real life."

The Future of Time 

Qi Sun, a professor at New York University, where he leads the Immersive Computing Lab, which focuses on perception-aware VR and AR, said in an email to Lifewire that in the future, you might feel time pass in VR through the use of visual and audio effects. 

"Or even haptic sensations now that haptics devices and brain-computer interfaces have been extensively developed," he added. 

Kennedy pointed out that VR could eventually be used to explore deep time in simulations. It's hard for the human mind to fathom the scale of geological time. 

"But by playing with spatial scales, we could show the vast eons between, say, the Cretaceous and the present day," he added. "Represented as physical strata in a section of rock, scaled up to the size of a skyscraper or down to fit in the user's hand."

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