“Make use of time, let not advantage slip.” — William Shakespeare, 1593.
Authors and scholars throughout history have often noted how fleeting time can feel. More progressive thinkers argue that time nothing more than a concept, idea or illusion.
Without getting too existential, it seems nothing can escape or alter the passage of time — except, perhaps, users of VR.
Time Flies When with VR
There are countless reports from VR users that have experienced some level of time dilation after engaging in a virtual world. As users experience a state of flow and presence in that world — enabled by a realistic experience combined with engaging activities — their perception of real time can waver.
This fits the old adage that “time flies when you’re having fun.”
Research from a team led by Dr. Bruder of the University of Hamburg sheds some light on the biological causes of the time-warp phenomenon and how it can be manipulated. Their research noted that the body’s circadian rhythm, or body clock, is largely informed by cues known as zeitgebers. These zeitgebers give the human body an unconscious estimate of the actual real-world time, the most prominent being the sun and its movement through the day.
In a virtual world, particularly in VR, the user inhabits an avatar and has complete freedom and parity of movement. This allows us to play with these zeitgebers programmatically as a scene is rendered. Adjusting the speed of the sun’s cycle, or keeping the user busy with cognitive tasks were shown to have the greatest effects.
Implications for Learning and Leisure
This is profound in that developers, creators and artists could explore time dilation in their works. Imagine taking hours of vacation, feeling fresh and invigorated, only to take the VR headset off and find that only 5 minutes have passed!
When applied to education and experiential learning, the applications for this time-bending phenomenon are also massive. Users could master skills faster and in inexpensive, risk-free environments. Take, for example, surgeons in operating rooms.
If a user had only half an hour to run through a refresher course, or even partake in a relaxing or enjoyable experience on their lunch break, VR could extend that perceived timeframe.
We’re Just Getting Started
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In the future, we may be looking at haptic suits that could subtly adjust temperatures and trick the mind into believing a virtual sunset is real. Then, we could realistically experience several virtual day and night cycles in VR at a time, where mere hours have passed in the real world.
This is a crucial area of investigation for us at VU and for the entire VR industry. We can use AI and machine learning to dynamically respond to user interactions, as well as mimic and alter real-world signals. In doing so, we can influence the body’s internal cues to help users make the most of any time spent in VU.