Research Case Study

Keeping it real in a virtual world

We are finding out how far we can push the limits of virtual reality

  • Tagged under

    Digital, creative and cultural

  • Lead Academic

    ​Professor Paul Hibbard

When you put on a virtual reality headset you are immediately transported to another world - be it to a place where dinosaurs roam or a thrilling galactic space battle.

But, how far can we push the limits of virtual reality (VR) before reality gets in the way?

These are the questions psychologists at Essex are hoping to answer as they probe how people interact with virtual reality technology.

From high-quality VR systems to simple headsets which hold smartphones, a technology revolution has made the VR world a reality for the masses.

Dr Loes van Dam and Professor Paul Hibbard, in the Department of Psychology, together with their colleague Dr Peter Scarfe at the University of Reading, are working with Oculus so that psychological research is used to perfect the virtual experience.

“We really want to see how the different senses interact to give the player a sense of being in a place,” explained Dr van Dam.

Professor Hibbard added: “With improvements in technology and the prices coming down, everyone can now enjoy a virtual experience. But it needs to be a realistic experience and that is what we are hoping to try and improve.”

What we are trying to find out

In the real world, as well as in virtual ones, what we see, hear and feel is constructed by our brains out of the sensory information that is available.

Our current work on virtual reality builds on the experience of the research team in understanding this process.

So what’s next?

We know that a 3D image is achieved by neurons at the back of the brain responding to the different images from each eye.

In our research, funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), we have created detailed models of complex objects and fed these to a computer so it could learn to see in depth.

Through this, we have been able to improve our understanding of how the brain does the same.

Our research aims to tackle this puzzle in parallel, comparing our computer models with direct measures of how people see in depth, in other projects funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust. This work, and other projects focused on how our vision - combined with other senses - provides the basis for the work in virtual reality.

 “You are always aware of where your hand is even if you can’t see it," explained Professor Hibbard. "To feel totally immersed in the VR experience there has to be a good match between your avatar hand in VR and your hand in real life.”

Research team
  • Professor Paul Hibbard, Department of Psychology, University of Essex
  • Dr Loes van Dam, Department of Psychology, University of Essex