March 4, 2009

World’s First Virtual Reality Headset Stimulates All 5 Senses

British scientists have developed the first virtual reality headset that can stimulate all five senses.

Would-be armchair travelers saw the new headset first hand at its unveiling at the "Pioneers '09' event at London's Olympia Conference Center on Wednesday.

Users of the new virtual reality headset will be able to hear roaring lions while on a virtual safari, smell the flowers of an Alpine meadow or feel the heat of the Caribbean sun on their face - all from the comfort of their chair.  

The headset will also allow users to greet family and friends on the other side of the world as if they were in same room, and to submerge themselves in fantasy worlds.

Virtual reality has long held out the hope that people might someday be able visit all kinds of places and periods as 'virtual' tourists.  However, until now such devices have not been able to simultaneously stimulate all five senses with a high degree of realism.

But scientists from the Universities of York and Warwick believe they have now identified the necessary expertise to make this possible, and have embarked on a new project they call "Towards Real Virtuality'.  The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is funding the initiative.

The project team coined the term "ËœReal Virtuality' to highlight their goal of providing a 'real' experience in which all senses are stimulated in such a way that the user has a fully immersive perceptual experience, during which s/he cannot tell whether or not the experience is real or virtual.

Teams at York and Warwick now seek to partner with experts at the Universities of Bangor, Bradford and Brighton to develop the 'Virtual Cocoon' "“ a new Real Virtuality device that can stimulate all five senses much more realistically than any other current or prospective device.

'Virtual Cocoon' users will have a headset incorporating specially developed electronics and computing capabilities. The scientists believe the device could help unlock the full potential benefits of Real Virtuality with applications in education, business and environmental protection.

"Virtual Reality projects have typically only focused on one or two of the five senses "“ usually sight and hearing. We're not aware of any other research group anywhere else in the world doing what we plan to do," said Professor David Howard of the University of York, the initiative's lead scientist.

"Smell will be generated electronically via a new technique being pioneered by Alan Chalmers and his team at Warwick which will deliver a pre-determined smell recipe on-demand. Taste and smell are closely linked but we intend to provide a texture sensation relating to something being in the mouth. Tactile devices will provide touch."

A central goal will be to optimize the way all five senses interact, as in real life. The team also seeks to make the Virtual Cocoon much lighter, more comfortable and less costly than current devices, by using the improved computing and electronics they will develop.

There has been sizeable public debate on health, safety and ethical issues surrounding Real Virtuality, since this kind of technology fundamentally involves immersing users in virtual environments that separate them from the real world.

"In addition to the technical development of the Virtual Cocoon, we aim to closely evaluate the full, far-reaching economic and other implications of more widespread application of Real Virtuality technologies for society as a whole," Professor Howard said.


Image Caption: Concept design of a mobile Virtual Cocoon


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