Visit UM-Dearborn Assistant Professor Fred Feng’s lab and you’ll catch a glimpse of how virtual reality is already changing how researchers approach their work. Feng, who specializes in studying active, sustainable transportation and spends a lot of time thinking about how to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, can study such topics now without always using actual roads. His cycling simulator setup does revolve around an actual bike. Its rear wheel is fixed to a stationary cycling trainer so research subjects can pedal without propelling themselves across the lab. While they do, they wear a VR headset that projects a virtual cycling experience zooming along at a speed commensurate with their pedaling. But there are some smaller, subtler features in Feng’s setup that are worth noting. A suspension platform simulates the side-to-side, forward-and-backward motion of normal cycling. He even recently added a fan that blows on you in proportion to your speed to simulate wind resistance — all to make it feel more like the real thing.
Feng’s effort to simulate the wind in your hair isn’t just for fun or flare. It’s essential to his research. “Typically, the reason we use virtual reality is because it provides an immersive environment compared with other kinds of simulations,” he explains. “So if we want to study how people would behave and react on a real road, it has to feel like a real road.” In fact, his focus on details that transcend the VR headset’s visuals and audio reveal a lot about the fundamental challenges of creating satisfying virtual reality experiences. Vision may feel primary in most people’s sensory experience of the world, which is why the initial wave of wearable VR technologies has likely focused on headsets. But it turns out all our senses quietly contribute to an experience that we would label as real. In fact, many people start to get nauseous after wearing a VR headset for a little while. This so-called “cybersickness” is a result of the moving VR visual experience being at odds with what our inner ear is telling us is happening to our actual stationary bodies. It’s a problem, Feng says, that still doesn't have a complete technological fix, though researchers think the solution may lie in simulating, and more importantly, coordinating multiple sensory experiences. Interestingly, this may be why the simple addition of a fan in Feng’s lab seems to reduce participants’ nausea in his cycling simulator.