Neuroscience Will Drive the Ultimate VR Experience.

Immersion & Presence.

There is no question that this is the key element to virtual reality becoming the next great medium, unlocking its true potential as a device that transports us to new places.

But how do we achieve immersion?

We believe that some elegant answers embedded in the field of neuroscience can unravel many of these questions.

How do we actually get to this?
  1. First Things First: What is Neuroscience?

Great question. It’s the collective branch of fields of academia which seek to study and understand the human nervous system. It’s a smorgasbord of knowledge for a pretty complex system: one that coordinates our voluntary and involuntary movements. Essentially, it’s this intermingled web that helps our body send signals it receives from stimulus in the physical world to our brain, and from our brain back to our organs and limbs. AKA: What allows us to interact with the organs responsible for interpreting our five senses.

Our understanding of this system and its relationship with our spinal cord, and ultimately, our brain, has been subject of years of research, philosophy and existential questioning.

It also happens to be the system responsible for the future of VR. Deep comprehension of this curious web of neurons, axons and cells will help shed light on our soon-to-be marriage with the new medium that is VR.

2. VR: New Medium, New Limitations

To understand how VR will become a transformative medium throughout the next several years, we need look no further than mediums we have already developed extensively. VR represents the emergence of a new medium that is just as essential to our species and unique as writing, radio and film have been.

Our relationship with each medium is underpinned by one common element: we love to tell stories.

But telling stories is actually a rather tough exercise in communication and a rather beautiful intellectual dance with our senses. To my point, we need look no further than the natural boundaries within existing mediums: written language for writing, sounds transmitted via radio and sight for film. These communicative dimensions, which are particular and unique to each medium, curiously, cannot be applied across the other mediums. At least not very well. Take the simple example of trying to write music rather than listen to it. While the same areas of our brain responsible for sound are busy firing away while we write, it’s not as deep or as vivid. Are you staying with me? Good. Let’s extend this thought to virtual reality, a medium that (for now) relies heavily on stimulating our visual senses. The question then becomes: relying almost exclusively on this sense, are we able to achieve true immersion?

Neuroscience, that is, the study of the interactivity between the brain and body, can fundamentally help clarify these questions and help us determine true immersion.

2) What Does it Mean to be Immersed?

Immersion, or the feeling of ‘presence’ is defined by the illusion of an absence of an intermediary between the user and reality. Let’s call this the VR middle-man. The existence of this illusion, or middle-man, can be verified once the person in a VR experience reacts the exact same way as they would have, had they lived the experience in reality. We need to consider immersion as the most essential element for VR, and we need to ensure that we are working on making the user emote to the exact same degree as they would in the natural world. Thus, from an evolutionary point of view, emotions are the best signal to identify whether somebody is feeling immersed are not. It is an appeal to our older, more developed hind-brain and not our younger, more recent rational brain. Yes, to make VR feel real, we need to appeal to our most cardinal of mammalian senses. Think about that for a second. One of the greatest advances in technology is really all about massaging & coaxing the neurons in our lower-order mind.

Getting a user to emote in VR is really what matters the most.

3) The parallels between sensorial information and neuroscience

In order to create the most immersive experiences possible, a few rules need to be respected. Before even jumping into the rules, it is important to understand that the brain builds its own reality by digesting information it receives from several sensorial inputs. If our brain receives incoherent information between different senses, immersion becomes, at best, trivial. In the case where a conflict should arise between our senses and our physiological system, a strong, uncomfortable feeling will be experienced. This is known as ‘motion sickness’ and is responsible for a large part of churn in VR — boredom is the other.

Even if certain rules cannot be violated, extraordinary results can be achieved through simple, minimalist design. Despite the monopoly that illusion holds on our brains, VR must be inspired by more traditional mediums such as music. For example, classical composer Bach was not talented in the art of grouping together distinct musical tones in such a way to produce a melody. In fact, Bach was a master illusionist with his violin, creating what sounds like several violins by manipulating only a single instrument. This fantastic illusion can be heard in the clip below, by closing our eyes and listening with good speakers.

Can you hear it? Playing it with the Ossic headphones could help too ;)

Since our reality is informed by several senses, the addition of coherent and well-produced sensorial information can be the golden key to unlocking true immersion. Given that the brain is a relatively complex organ, several fields of science are working together under the umbrella of ‘neuroscience’ to discover, understand and define the guidelines to our mind and body that will make VR feel truly special.

4) How does neuroscience help better understand immersion?

Human beings demonstrate a lot of variability and neuroscience will play a leading role towards understanding our emotional differences, similarities and uniqueness. In fact, researchers have found that an increase in the feeling of immersion was directly correlated to a larger physiological response. For example, if the user was standing on the edge of a cliff in a VR world, the subject’s heart rate increased significantly if they had to walk a wooden plank across the other side, and the scientist could have control over how intense the experience felt. The fact that the intensity level can indeed be controlled in VR is extremely useful in treating phobias, for instance. A reaction that is too strong or too weak could considerably diminish the effectiveness of the treatment. This is why being able to track, measure and understand user behavior in a VR experience is essential. To put it simply, the world of virtual reality UX & UI are yet to be well defined, and what’s exciting is that for the first time, the instrument of measurement is both the human mind and body.

We hope, like us, you’re as excited about the evolution of virtual reality and the potential of this new medium. We purposefully left a lot of unanswered questions in the post, we hope you’ll join us on the journey of helping understand, shape and question how to create beautiful VR experiences.Get in touch & to test our analytics platform for VR, come over to
Written by Charles-Étienne Couture, our resident Neuroscientist for Retinad VR — the analytics platform for virtual reality, helping drive cognitive and behavioral research, specialized in neurobiology and psychology. *Edited by Alexander Haque
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