Virtual reality will soon be able to go underwater

Assistant Professor of Psychology is developing an underwater VR headset as part of grant for NASA

Paul MacNeilage, assistant professor of psychology tests the first version of the underwater VR mask in a pool.

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8/1/2018 | By: Lisa McDonald |

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is in high demand right now and new applications are popping up all the time. Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, Paul MacNeilage, is among those developing new applications for VR. One of these developments is a VR headset that is capable of being used underwater. Currently, MacNeilage and his team have designed and are testing such a headset that can be used for NASA.

Paul MacNeilage scuba diving in pool with VR headset

Paul MacNeilage toggles to move underwater during a simulated VR experience.

MacNeilage just completed research for a one-year grant from the Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium. This grant helped to develop the simulation of jet pack locomotion. In space, astronauts have to navigate using a joystick, so MacNeilage has come up with a way to simulate the physics of a real jet pack while underwater.

"If you want to have an experience as close as possible to real life jet pack locomotion, then you should probably be doing this underwater," MacNeilage said. NASA already has virtual reality training and hybrid VR training experiences, but they have not developed the technology to do virtual reality training underwater.

Training underwater can give astronauts the sense of zero gravity and while wearing this underwater headset, they will be able to simulate experiences like being broken from a tether and have to navigate their way back to a set destination by separately controlling rotation and translation to move in a given direction.

The equipment

A high-end scuba mask was purchased for this project, which MacNeilage then 3D scanned and modeled at the DeLaMare Science and Engineering Library. He removed the mask visor and replaced it with his own 3D printed plastic box which contains a smartphone and eye lenses. The outside of the box was coated with spray-on rubberized paint/sealer to make it waterproof and to reduce light seepage into the mask.

Underwater VR headset with controller

VR underwater headset with controller.

The controller looks like an average gaming controller which sits in a waterproof bag that clamps around the cords that plug into the mask.

MacNeilage has completed pool tests of the equipment, diving eight-10 feet. He still has some work to do on the equipment, as the controller packaging needs to be made more waterproof and the mask is too buoyant, making the diver's head float up. "The main thing is to not come into contact with either the bottom of the pool or the surface because this would interfere with the sensation of floating as you might in zero gravity," MacNeilage said. His next plan is to add weight to the mask.

Once the headset is fully developed, MacNeilage hopes to make the model available to the public. He thinks that by providing his 3D model and letting people know the details of the kit he has made, then anyone should be able to go out and buy the materials and make one for themselves.

Astronaut training isn't the only practical application underwater VR headsets can be used for. MacNeilage said this equipment could be helpful to the construction industry and bridge builders, or even water safety training personnel.

VR sickness research

MacNeilage's research goes beyond developing underwater systems. His primary focus is on how the brain and nervous system take all the available input - sensory input and motor signals - to reconstruct how the body moves in space. His goal is to get a measure of perceptual sensitivity to then correlate that to measures of motion sickness.

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Currently, MacNeilage's lab, the Self Motion Lab, is looking at why women suffer more from VR sickness than men. "There is a lot of evidence suggesting that women are more likely to report simulator sickness than men. This is a problem for the VR industry, but also it's a question of accessibility. If females are less able to use this technology, then they're at a disadvantage," MacNeilage said.

To study this, the lab conducts different locomotion activities with both male and female participants and compares the results. Individuals complete motion sickness questionnaires before and after the study and are asked to complete a task such as navigating a virtual environment in which the screen size shrinks gradually during movement. The shrinking field of view tends to lead to less simulator sickness, but one of the questions MacNeailage and his team want to answer is if there are negative consequences to doing this.

The Hexapod Motion Base uses six degrees of freedom for motion tracking to help understand an individual’s perceptual sensitivity to motion sickness.

Future outcomes for VR sickness

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MacNeilage recently received another grant to support his research - this one from Facebook Reality Labs. Facebook Reality Labs invited MacNeilage out to their Seattle, Wash. facility to give a talk on his latest research, which focuses on how sensitive individuals are to mismatches in physical movement and visual scene movement.

The ultimate goal for this research is to assess how sensitive individuals are to VR sickness and help develop a scale or rating level of these sensitivities. Given that an individual knows their own sensitivity rating, they could then tailor or customize their VR experience. VR software currently has challenge ratings to let individuals know how challenging an app is. "If you knew your susceptibility beforehand, then you can have your experiences catered or maybe tailor any given challenging experience to make it more comfortable to you," MacNeilage said.

For students interested in learning about virtual reality research, MacNeilage teaches a course along with Eelke Folmer, computer science associate professor in the College of Engineering, on human machine interaction in virtual reality. Students learn about perception and the technology that makes it possible. Students are broken up into groups and have to design their own virtual reality application. The course PSY484/CS484 is offered every spring.

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