Students Staff

22 December 2016

Virtual reality – going beyond the popular Christmas gift

Image of someone using a VR headset

Virtual reality headsets are causing a festive frenzy this Christmas after becoming the must-have item on many people’s present list.

But how far will the technology have to develop in the future for people to really feel they are in a virtual world? That is the question psychologists at Essex are hoping to answer with a new research project funded by an Oculus Research grant.

The dramatic rise in virtual reality (VR) in recent years is thanks to improvements in phone technology, where phones provide a high-resolution image and can track their own movement. The past five years has seen the price of VR systems fall dramatically and high-quality VR systems are now available for under £1,000. For a more basic experience you can buy headsets from just £15 this Christmas that allow smartphones to be used as complete VR systems.

However, all VR systems have some delay in what the player does and how quickly their avatar copies it in the VR world. The representation in the VR world depends on the tracking capabilities of the system. Current consumer market models that are purpose-built for the gaming industry are at the level that such inaccuracies are hardly noticeable. The question researchers at Essex are hoping to answer is how the sense of being in virtual reality depends on the tracking correspondence between the real and virtual worlds.

Led by Dr Loes van Dam, from the Department of Psychology, the project will use a system where the player’s real hands will be used in the VR game. They will then determine what the acceptable level of mismatch is in how players move their actual hands and the movement of their avatar’s hand.

As Professor Paul Hibbard, who is also working on the project explained: “You are always aware of where your hand is even if you can’t see it. To feel totally immersed in the VR experience there has to be a good match between your avatar hand in VR and your hand in real life.”

Dr van Dam added: ”Our research is looking at VR from a psychological point of view. We want to know how mismatches between the felt and the seen hand affects a player’s behaviour and sense of feeling they are in the game, i.e. at what level will it start to affect their perception. We really want to see how the different senses interact to give the player a sense of being in a place.”

Funded by Facebook’s Oculus, the one-year project; a collaboration with Dr Peter Scarfe at the University of Reading, will see how much of a mismatch there can be for it still to feel the behaviour is natural. The psychologists will artificially change the levels of mismatch to find the maximum people can accept and still feel a sense of being in the virtual world.

Their findings will help manufacturers improve their VR consumer products to give a better customer experience.

“With improvements in technology and the prices coming down, everyone can now enjoy a virtual experience,” added Professor Hibbard. “But it needs to be a realistic experience and that is what we are hoping to try and improve.”


Note to Editors

For more details please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or email

About Oculus Research grants

Oculus Research offers competitive funding to advance basic research into a number of areas of perception science that impact the development of virtual reality platforms. The areas of research in 2016 included self-motion, binocular eye- movements, multisensory perception and biological motion in social interaction, with up to $250,000 allocated to the winning three research proposals.

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