Vibrations and Mirrors Simulate Walking in Virtual Reality Settings

New technology makes it possible to go for a walk without leaving your chair.

(Image by Pexels from Pixabay)

(CN) — The sensation of walking may just be the brain’s understanding of vibrations and visual cues. Research published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Virtual Reality describes how to make a person who is sitting perfectly still feel like they are walking.

“Most of the previously proposed walking experience devices require users to ‘move their own feet’ and the walking sensation was easily evoked,” said Yusuke Matsuda, one of the paper’s authors. “We predicted that it would be difficult to induce a walking sensation because the user did not move at all. We solved this problem by combining three types of stimuli: optic flow, foot vibration and avatar.

“Walking is a fundamental and fun activity for humans in everyday life. Therefore, it is very worthwhile to provide a high-quality walking experience in a VR space,” added Matsuda, an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Toyohashi University of Technology.

In addition helping people escape the lockdown blues during the Covid-19 pandemic, better walking simulations can help people with mobility issues experience the freeing sensation of going for a stroll.

“You can travel to the opposite side of the world while staying at home. I would like to make virtual walking at Antarctica and the mountain ridge of the Alps,” Matsuda said.

While other studies have simulated walking using treadmills or leg supports, researchers at Toyohashi University devised a system to generate movement for a person who is sitting perfectly still in a chair.

Forty male students aged 19 to 24 participated in two different studies, with 20 in each. While sitting on a stool in the lab, each man entered a world built of textured wood through a HTC Vive headset.

Their feet were placed on vibro-transducers made of aluminum springs and wood. The shoe-shaped device emulated the soft vibrations of footsteps. Audio recorded of feet crossing an asphalt road flowed in through noise-canceling headphones in sync with the avatar’s movement.

All participants used the Toshiro full-body avatar, depicting a man about 5 foot 5 inches tall wearing a dark green plaid shirt.

Participants rated their experience based on four criteria: “1. I felt that my entire body was moving forward (self-motion); 2. I felt as if I was walking forward (walking sensation); 3. I felt as if my feet were striking the ground (leg action); 4. I felt as if I was present in the scene (telepresence).”

The feeling of walking was felt most strongly by participants using a first-person viewpoint who were able to see their virtual body in a mirror. Third-person viewpoints felt too disconnected from the body to generate a feeling of movement, even with the foot vibrations.

Mirrors placed throughout the simulation allowed participants to view their avatars. When they were able to see themselves in full-body view, it enhanced the feeling of walking the most. A view of only the avatar’s feet and hands also helped create sensations of movement. Like the third-person view point, the empty mirror did not generate feelings of movement or ownership over the avatar.

While the technology is not yet market ready, Matsuda anticipated the system could be made available for $300 to $500.

Now the lab is looking to give users more autonomy in the virtual world.

“The current walking experience system uses passive stimuli, so the user cannot move freely by their own volition,” Matsuda explained. “It will be essential to include a mechanism that allows the user to move at will. Therefore, my next research plan is how to incorporate active decision-making into passive stimuli in the walking experience system.”

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