The holy grail of virtual reality: A complete suspension of disbelief

This article was originally published by Labster Scientific Collaboration Specialist Mikkel Marfelt on 1 September 2016 here.

Virtual reality (VR) is the tech-topic of 2016. The biggest tech companies are all launching VR hardware in a fight for market-shares and to avoid missing the next ‘tech-train’ (see for example VR hardware from Google, Samsung, Sony, Facebook and even rumors about an Apple VR headset). Goldman Sachs forecasts that VR software development (in particular virtual simulation development) will become a $72 billion market by 2025. In short, VR is coming – like it or not.

It’s no secret that we here at Labster are pretty excited about VR. However, if we are to successfully introduce VR into education and training, we need to know how to create VR simulations that unlock these new great ways of learning (note: picture below is from the TedTalk ‘This virtual lab will revolutionize science classes‘).

CTO Michael Bodekær presents to TEDx ‘This virtual lab will revolutionize science classes’

A complete suspension of disbelief

So how can we unlock these new ways of learning? To do this we need to understand what VR does to your brain. The key to unlocking this is to focus on immersion – the feeling of being physically present in a non-physical world. Immersion is created by surrounding the VR user in images, sounds and more that can stimulate your senses. Immersion is sometimes defined as:

“… the state of consciousness where a user’s awareness of the physical self is transformed by being surrounded in an artificial environment” – a state where users can experience a complete suspension of disbelief.

Take a moment to think about this: A complete suspension of disbelief. This is, quite frankly, amazing. A complete suspension of disbelief is what Neo experiences in the matrix before realising he is living in a simulated reality.

The degree to which the virtual environment faithfully reproduces reality determines the degree of suspension of disbelief. The greater the suspension of disbelief, the greater the degree of presence achieved. For some purposes the holy grail of VR is to make you experience the virtual world as the real world. For educational purposes, complete suspension of disbelief is great to unlock, but not necessarily the best way to learn. For some of our simulations here at Labster, a complete suspension of disbelief would not work. We develop simulations where students can use explosive materials, work with deadly viruses and other things that people would not engage with, if sensing a complete suspension of disbelief (you would not risk blowing yourself up if you truly believed this could happen in a virtual world).

What VR does to your brain

At the moment we, here at Labster, are researching how VR impacts peoples ability to learn by measuring brain waves using EEG (see picture below). We believe that to create the next generation of groundbreaking learning tools, we must master the skills of creating immersion. More importantly though, we must master the use of different degrees of immersion to impact peoples ability to learn.

Students are engaged while using Labster’s VR labs

Of course, today in 2016, we are far from creating a complete suspension of disbelief. We still need to know much more about how to build perfectly immersive virtual worlds. However, the better we understand ways to create immersion, and the better we understand ways to use different degrees of immersion, the better we will become at making students and employees learn. This will enable people to learn through failure by letting them make mistakes without actually blowing themselves up or destroying lab equipment.

Today, researchers, tech providers and software developers around the world are building the very first versions of what one day might become truly simulated realities – though we are far from reaching the goal yet, we are approaching a future where we can create a complete suspension of disbelief.

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