Is the Key to Futuristic VR Hidden Inside Our Own Minds?

Chat with any VR enthusiast and somehow you’ll always end up talking about when and how full immersion will become a reality for us. When you think about it, there’s no mystery to it. Because if we are creating a reality different than the one we are living in then the least we need to do is to make it indistinguishable from the existing one. Anything less than that will never take off as something that appeals to everyone. It’s true that VR has come a long way since its inception, but there’s still a lot to do before we can say that it becomes a full dive immersive reality.

Experts are juggling a lot of ideas and developments to create a virtual reality that seems realistic and makes it functionally identical to real life. At the moment you need a whole bunch of devices to simulate the senses of sight, sound and smell. And if you intend to feel the virtual objects then you’ll need to suit up. Even when you carry all the bulk on your face and wear a haptic suit (which costs a lot), you still aren’t truly immersed in virtual world. This is partly because it’s hard not to notice the heavy gear you are wearing and partly because VR content available at the moment is very limited and not immersive enough.

To create an experience that completely immerses you, we need to reduce weight of VR gear, have less latency and better screen resolution. Although developers have focused their resources on developing gear that is lighter, and more convenient, but even when we succeed in transforming the VR headsets to compact eye lenses, it can only make us see. But what about the other senses? True immersion is not likely to be experienced unless all of our senses are engaged.

Ideally, we shouldn’t need to worry about multiple devices to plug in. Think about a scenario where you don’t need a set of things to use in certain ways so you can enjoy VR. As much as it sounds like a fantasy that can only be realized in a sci-fi movie, it’s actually becoming a concept that people are starting to believe in. Researchers have already spotted a connection between brain and VR. If we can find a way to make brain the hub then we’ll be one step closer to a full dive virtual reality.

This is where BCI comes in. Brain Computer Interface (BCI) forms a direct communication pathway between an external device and an enhanced brain, creating a bidirectional information flow. Since brain controls every nerve and part of human body, given the right stimulus it can simulate all five senses in virtual reality. Imagine stepping into a world that could only be seen in movies before. It would remove the need to attach numerous pieces to your body and make the world more believable.

BCI in VR has the potential to remove boundaries between imagination and creation. Imagine having the power to create something out of nothing with just a thought. It will completely transform the way artists create art. Think of how much money, human resources and time would be saved if you could build an entire house in front of you and interact with it, tweak it as you desire and see how it will look in real life. “Seeing is believing” will be experienced at an entirely different level as storytellers will be able to create interactive stories in visual form that will be nothing short of magic. It won’t be long before 360-degree programming places viewers in the front seat of creation from the comfort of their own couches.

If this sounds too far out there, here’s a study that proves it’s actually doable. BCIs that decode neuron signals have actually been developed by a group of researchers. One of the prominent research group includes Donoghue, Schwartz and Andersen who have produced functioning BCIs. These interfaces can work even through recorded signals from far fewer neurons (15-30) in comparison to the ones that were previously used by other researchers (50-200). With these researches, they have proved that BCI can be used to track visual targets on a computer screen with or without a joystick, can do 3D tracking in VR and recreate BCI control in a robotic arm. A test animal could feed itself pieces of food with the help of a robotic arm controlled by brain signals of that animal.

Human senses replicated in virtual reality perceived identical to real world will achieve the “3 Is” of VR: imagination, interaction and immersion. Current VR technology is constrained by its inability to create a more lifelike experience and BCI seems to be the thing that can fill that gap. With the emergence of BCI, questions of its invasive nature were raised. However, work has been started on non-invasive neuroimaging technologies as interfaces. It may not be possible in a year or two, but it definitely holds a lot of potential for the sci-fi future we’re all rooting for.

The key to opening up the locks of full immersion in VR is no doubt inside our own minds. It’s just a matter of time before we can craft a perfect key for the lock.