My brain did something crazy and totally new in virtual reality

Virtual reality htc viveValve

I have terrible vision. Colorblind, nearsighted, and rocking a severe astigmatism in my left eye, my world is a bit of a cloudy haze. One major consequence of this is an almost total lack of depth perception, due to the imbalance between my peepers.

I spent so much time without glasses on as a kid that now, even with glasses, my brain doesn’t really process the world in depth. So my experiences with 3D movies and early virtual reality sets like the Oculus DK2 have been pretty disappointing.

When I tried on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset everything felt flat. But, after just a few minutes wandering around tossing planets back and forth in the game “Universe Sandbox 2” — which lets you build stars and galaxies from scratch — something clicked into place in my head.

I stepped around the massive blue expanse of Uranus toward the little red planet Mars I’d placed in its orbit (this story will sound bonkers if you’ve never experienced this game on the Vive), when a little moon I’d forgotten about whizzed past my head.

And that little moon popped.

Picture: Universe Sandbox ²
Picture: Universe Sandbox ²

I’m not sure whether it was the Vive’s left screen falling squarely in my bad eye’s super-close working range, the bright light activating its unused mental pathway, the strangeness of VR scrambling things up, or something else entirely, but the world suddenly exploded along a dimension I can’t ever remember seeing so clearly. Gas giants bulged toward me. Smaller rocky bodies made me flinch as they flashed past.

This imaginary digital universe was wonderfully, intensely realer than anything I’d encountered in our boring analogue one.

There hasn’t been a lot of research yet into the unusual effects virtual reality can have on depth perception, but one study did find that the technology could screw with depth perception in some pretty major ways.

The HTC Vive also has some features that make the virtual reality experience more visceral. So far, it’s the only consumer headset to let you walk around virtual space or interact with virtual objects with your hands. (Oculus should get that capability this fall.) Being able to not only see the world in the three dimensions all of a sudden, but truly, directly interact with it made for a kind of hyperreal experience like nothing I’ve ever encountered.

After I took the headset off, I could feel my brain struggling to readjust. Unfortunately, the depth effect didn’t carry over effectively into the real world. But all the little black words on my computer monitor seemed to undulate madly for 10 or 20 minutes — an effect I was able to replicate by popping back into the Vive for just another minute or two.

Have you had a similar depth perception experience in virtual reality? Tweet me about it.

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