Virtual reality could be the most important gimmick ever based on a brain flaw

Oculus is already producing high-res video like this short, called 'Lost.
Credit: oculus.com

Researchers working on ways to design computers that operate more like the human brain than like a really, really, really smart drugstore calculator might want to think twice considering some of the things virtual reality is revealing about how human brains actually work – and how they don’t.

One reviewer considering the performance of the human brain gushed "How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!...in apprehension, how like a god."

When it ships in 2016, Oculus users might see other worlds more literaly than they know. Oculus.com

It would be wise to see which god that might be, however. As a computing platform, human brains are a little bit broken. They're so unpredictable and inaccurate that they regularly reject an obvious, accurate answer and replace it with elaborate lies that it likes better, while never forgetting they're not true.

Human brains are so excited about virtual reality that they're looking for the lines to stand in to wait for the chance to acquire a VR headset like a Sony Morpheus, HTC Vive, Microsoft HoloLens or Occulus Rift – which isn't likely to ship this year but is so desperately anticipated that gamers are already moaning about how much it will cost to build up a PC powerful enough to support Rift's stunningly clear picture of alternate realities.

Those realities are more complete, more powerful and more compelling than movies or video games (though the "fun and affordable" Google Cardboard "virtual reality" is not).

The desire for good-quality virtual reality is so intense there is already debate over the propriety of Oculus' pledge not to block porn on its headset – in the interest of preserving the Rift as an "open platform," Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said at a virtual-reality conference yesterday in San Jose, Calif.

Companies like VirtualRealPorn are building video content in 180-degree stereoscopic 3D, head tracking and binaural sound, though Gizmodo reports the pickings are still relatively slim compared to the rest of the Internet, 4.4 of which is made up of porn, according to market-intelligence firm SimilarWeb.

Using rich, visually convincing virtual reality for porn would be either a waste or, possibly, a little dangerous based on studies during the past few years that demonstrate human brains change on a very fundamental level during exposure to virtual reality. Even when exposed to something relatively tame – like the realistic real-world virtual reality RealiSM developed at France's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EFPL).

The EFPL system is one of a growing number being used to accelerate both psychological and physical therapies that have been shown to help reduce the real-world fears of autistic children, to teach self-acceptance and self-compassion as a treatment for depression and other ailments and to provide unusually effective assertiveness training to teen victims of sexual assault. It has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD in Iraq- and Afghanistan War veterans, when combined with drug- and talk therapies.

Since perception and psychological ailments are both part of the perceptual world inside the brain, it makes sense that virtual reality might have great potential for therapy. It doesn't make sense that going through physical rehabilitative therapy in virtual reality would help patients recover physically from symptoms following a stroke, alleviate chronic pain, improve the physical symptoms of Parkinson's disease, or help reduce persistent neck pain.

Human imagination has so powerful an effect on the rest of the brain and on the body, however that people who simply visualize themselves doing something successfully significantly improve their physical performance when they actually do it, according to Geoffrey Woodman, a researcher at Vanderbilt University.

Woodman is co-author of a new study that combined EEG scans of the brain with a process in which participants would visualize themselves searching for and identifying objects on a series of complex images. Doing it cut the average seek time by 200ms and provided EEG data showing the same parts of the brain lighting up during the imagination session as during the search.

The phenomenon is similar to the practice of divers and other Olympic athletes pausing before a demanding task to visualize themselves completing it successfully.

"This study indicates that some of the success of imagery for learning in sports, music, and clinical settings is due to how well our sensory systems process inputs. So using imagery can change information processing in the brain at the earliest levels," Woodman said in an announcement of the study, which was just published in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers at EFPL are trying to understand the mechanism of that connection by developing a high-quality VR system called RealiSM and using it to test the physical sense of presence and space in virtual worlds and examine how the system or the experience contributed to study participants' state of mind.

The headset provides a richly immersive visual and audio experience, according to the March 30 announcement. The inventors expanded by it by allowing patients to walk around their environment and move things in the real world that RealiSM renders for them virtually.

The idea isn't to compete with Oculus Rift; the idea is to test just how deeply human perception is fooled by virtualized reality, what the impact might be of too much time online, or too much of the wrong kind of experience in virtual reality.

"There is a positive feedback loop between virtual reality and cognitive neuroscience," according to EPFL researcher and project leader Bruno Herbelin, who was quoted in the statement. "On one hand, with a VR setup we have an environment that can be completely controlled and endlessly repeated—which are ideal experimental conditions. On the other hand, insights from the cognitive sciences are leading to more immersive, extremely realistic experiences for increasingly effective clinical therapies, behavioral experiments and even better gameplay for entertainment."

So…just to clarify, based on solid research results at a misinterpretation of one well-respected researcher's opinion: VR should be used first for physical and psychological therapies, then education or entertainment and only later – when all the kinks are worked out of the mind/body interaction – should it be used for porn.

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