The Ambiotherm system has been developed so that the simulated worlds of virtual reality are not just visually impressive, but actually palpable for the user.
“It’s easy to simulate images and sounds in a virtual world,” says Adalberto Simeone from the University of Portsmouth. “However, imitating other sensory stimuli is much more difficult.” Nevertheless, a research group from Singapore has now developed a method that allows sun and wind to be simulated in virtual reality (VR) applications using the Ambiotherm add-on system, which can be easily retrofitted to VR goggles.
Simulating weather conditions usually requires an entire room filled with wind machines and heaters but the Ambiotherm system produces this effect with the help of just two small modules. One module is attached to the underside of the VR goggles and comprises two rotating fans that blow a variable stream of air into the face of the user. The other module is mounted at the user’s neck and manipulates their perception of temperature using Peltier elements that dissipate either cold or warmth onto the user’s skin. The combination of these two modules allows the user to feel a headwind when skiing or the desert sun burning the back of their neck while they are immersed in their virtual world.
Blending physical and virtual realities
However, the effects of the Ambiotherm system are not limited to purely certain body parts. Experiments conducted by the group of scientists have shown that localized stimuli can affect the entire body. By gradually increasing the temperature of the module attached to their neck, users experienced a more general rise in their perceived temperature, and feeling a draft on their mouth, nose and throat also created the illusion of being in a windy environment. The scientists hope to use these methods to enhance the level of immersion so that virtual reality feels as much like the physical world as possible.
By the end of 2017, the real world is set to be blended with the simulated world to form a “merged reality”, as the wireless VR solution Project Alloy from Intel will allow real spaces, objects and people to feature in virtual reality applications. To do so requires no external cameras or sensors, as the RealSense camera on the VR goggles scans the surrounding environment, allowing the user to move freely around rooms without encountering any obstacles and to use their hands to interact with the virtual environment.
Developing Ambiotherm to include taste and smell
The research group in Singapore is also working on incorporating other bodily functions into the Ambiotherm system. The goal is to create a multisensory virtual reality that offers touch, taste and smell stimuli in addition to images and sounds. Scientists have already proven in the past that sweet tastes can be simulated via electrical stimulation of the tongue. “We are investigating how human emotions can be intensified using multisensory VR,” explains Project Leader Nimesha Ranasinghe. “The next step is to integrate smells and vibrations.”
There are various potential applications for the technology. In early experiments, the scientists showed that virtual reality decreases pain and fear and can help induce sensation in paralyzed limbs. At the moment, the work on Ambiotherm is only a scientific experiment but manufacturers of VR games could soon also begin harnessing the potential of simulated weather for their products.