8.3.1 Tailoring the Physics to the Experience

If we expect to fool our brains into believing that we inhabit the virtual world, then many of our expectations from the real world should be matched in the virtual world. We have already seen this in the case of the physics of light (Chapter 4) applying to visual rendering of virtual worlds (Chapter 7). Motions in the virtual world should also behave in a familiar way.

This implies that the VWG contains a physics engine that governs the motions of bodies in the virtual world by following principles from the physical world. Forces acting on bodies, gravity, fluid flows, and collisions between bodies should be handled in perceptually convincing ways. Physics engines arise throughout engineering and physics in the context of any simulation. In video games, computer graphics, and film, these engines perform operations that are very close to our needs for VR. This is why popular game engines such as Unity 3D and Unreal Engine have been quickly adapted for use in VR. As stated in Section 2.2, we have not yet arrived at an era in which general and widely adopted VR engines exist; therefore, modern game engines are worth understanding and utilizing at present.

To determine what kind of physics engine needs to be borrowed, adapted, or constructed from scratch, one should think about the desired VR experience and determine the kinds of motions that will arise. Some common, generic questions are:

In addition to the physics engine, these questions will also guide the design of the interface, which is addressed in Chapter 10.

Based on the answers to the questions above, the physics engine design may be simple and efficient, or completely overwhelming. As mentioned in Section 7.4, a key challenge is to keep the virtual world frequently updated so that interactions between users and objects are well synchronized and renderers provide a low-latency projection onto displays.

Note that the goal may not always be to perfectly match what would happen in the physical world. In a familiar setting, we might expect significant matching; however, in exotic settings, it often becomes more important to make a comfortable experience, rather than matching reality perfectly. Even in the case of simulating oneself walking around in the world, we often want to deviate from real-world physics because of vection, which causes VR sickness (see Section 8.4).

The remainder of this section covers some fundamental aspects that commonly arise: 1) numerical simulation of physical systems, 2) the control of systems using human input, and 3) collision detection, which determines whether bodies are interfering with each other.

Steven M LaValle 2020-01-06