Human place perception + Virtual Reality: Exploring design opportunities


10th Aug 2019


“however real the physical world is — the virtual world is exactly as real, and achieves the same status. But at the same time it also has this infinity of possibility that you don’t have in the physical world ..  

it gives us this sense of being able to be who we are without limitation; for our imagination to become objective and shared with other people” – John Lanier, SIGGRAPH 1989

The above statement by the person who coined the term “virtual reality” indicates the excitement and potentiality associated with this technology. Although the world has witnessed a series of hope and disappointment cycles with regards to VR, the proponents of this technology still believe in its ability of creating an alternate reality and argue for a  future wherein humans would live within the virtual world.

Irrespective of where the future lies, even the current state-of-art VR is capable for eliciting presence for human subjects (feeling of our bodies being present in the virtual world,) owing to the high ecological validity. Easy control through computers differentiates VR from the real world, turning it into a unique dynamic yet naturalistic computational media.

Place forms the basis of the human experience; it situates our activities and thoughts in the present, our memories of the past and our imagination, dreams of the future. VR is successfully able to trick the brain circuitry responsible for place perception  — the place cells fire in response to being placed in different virtual environments. I envision combining the dynamism of VR with brain-computer interfaces leading to transcendental lived experiences wherein the subjects can create and perceive their reality together.

We designed a VR experience to speculate on the possibilities afforded by this vision. The subject is seated in a trolley which goes through different (virtual) places connected through tunnels; each place was designed to elicit an authentic lived experience corresponding to its context. The subject wears a brain-computer interface that monitors his/her brain activity corresponding to the travel experience. 





A scene from Inception movie: Ariadne learns to build the dream




As a starting point, we are trying to observe the different mental reactions that can be elicited in the user through different place stimuli. We designed for four places: an outdoor natural environment, an indoor hospital environment to elicit fear, a child’s room, and a school corridor to elicit nostalgia (see video below). The experience was pilot tested with 5 participants. Currently, we are working on analyzing the EEG data collected during this testing. I will update the project here as and when we make more progress.





Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography

Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies