GDC 2016 - This is Your Brain on VR

By Geoffrey Douglas, Published: 03/25/2016, Last Updated: 03/25/2016

This is Your Brain on VR: A Look at the Psychology of Doing VR Right

Speaker: Kimberly Voll (Radial Games, Riot Games)

Kimberly Voll, a PhD Computer Scientist with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cognitive Science, is one of the developers of the upcoming Vive launch title, Fantastic Contraption. In this session, she spoke about how our brains take in input from the world to give us our understanding of reality. Understanding how our brains perceive reality is extremely important to understanding how they will perceive virtual reality. Here are some of the core concepts.

Fantastic Contraption Screenshot

We can’t trust our brains. They work very hard to generate a consistent, sensible world view for us, in the face of inconsistent or missing data. This is great news for VR. The brain is gullible, and if we don’t get in its way, it will fill in most of the holes in the virtual world that the designers could not. Designers can further help out the brain by giving it a narrative to explain the sensations it experience, and giving players haptic feedback to experience more of the world through touch.

It is extremely important to always maintain a fidelity contract with your player. This means that their expectations of the world must match the affordances you give it. Some of our expectations are based on our understanding of basic physics, some are unconscious, some reflect our innate desires, and some are based on the narrative we are told. If anything in the world breaks the fidelity contract, the experience starts to fall apart. The key to preserving the contract is to playtest your experience and observe what the players do. And if you have to, rework the experience to either meet or change their expectations.

Preventing motion sickness is a very tricky problem, but possibly the most important one to solve. Our brains are designed to move us through the world, not to have the world move around us. To illustrate this idea better, Kimberly had the audience participate in a little exercise that you can try too. Extend your right arm and hold up your index finger. Keeping your finger still, shake your head left and right, and try to focus on your finger. Now keep you head still, move your finger left and right, and try to focus on it. Did you notice that it was much easier to focus on your finger while your head was moving, but really hard while your head remained still?

So why is it so important to address this problem? Well, besides not wanting to make people sick, it's because when people go around saying things like, “I don’t like VR, it makes me sick,” they are not just representing a single bad experience, they are representing the entire medium. Statements like that have the potential to ruin the current virtual reality renaissance before it even takes off. Everyone reacts differently to VR, so the best thing you can do for your player is to set expectations early. Before they ever play your game, educate them on the comfort level they are likely to experience. 

Finally, VR developers have a lot of power to create awesome new experiences for people. People who may never have the resources to travel abroad might get to see the wonders of our world. People with disabilities might be able to experience worlds that free from the limitations they have in the real world. But we must remember what Uncle Ben taught Peter: with great power comes great responsibility. Even though virtual reality is not “real”, we can sure make it feel real enough, and the potential to cause physical and psychological trauma is real. Our players put their trust in us when they put on the VR headset, and we must not violate that trust.


Photo Credits:

Fantastic Contraption Screenshot:

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