2.3 Human Physiology and Perception

Our bodies were not designed for VR. By applying artificial stimulation to the senses, we are disrupting the operation of biological mechanisms that have taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve in a natural environment. We are also providing input to the brain that is not exactly consistent with all of our other life experiences. In some instances, our bodies may adapt to the new stimuli. This could cause us to become unaware of flaws in the VR system. In other cases, we might develop heightened awareness or the ability to interpret 3D scenes that were once difficult or ambiguous. Unfortunately, there are also many cases where our bodies react by increased fatigue or headaches, partly because the brain is working harder than usual to interpret the stimuli. Finally, the worst case is the onset of VR sickness, which typically involves symptoms of dizziness and nausea.

Perceptual psychology is the science of understanding how the brain converts sensory stimulation into perceived phenomena. Here are some typical questions that arise in VR and fall under this umbrella:

To answer these questions and more, we must understand several things: 1) basic physiology of the human body, including sense organs and neural pathways, 2) the key theories and insights of experimental perceptual psychology, and 3) the interference of the engineered VR system with our common perceptual processes and the resulting implications or side effects.

The perceptual side of VR often attracts far too little attention among developers. In the real world, perceptual processes are mostly invisible to us. Think about how much effort it requires to recognize a family member. When you see someone you know well, the process starts automatically, finishes immediately, and seems to require no effort. Scientists have conducted experiments that reveal how much work actually occurs in this and other perceptual processes. Through brain lesion studies, they are able to see the effects when a small part of the brain is not functioning correctly. Some people suffer from prosopagnosia, which makes them unable to recognize the faces of familiar people, including themselves in a mirror, even though nearly everything else functions normally. Scientists are also able to perform single-unit recordings, mostly on animals, which reveal the firings of a single neuron in response to sensory stimuli. Imagine, for example, a single neuron that fires whenever you see a sphere.

Steven M LaValle 2020-01-06