In an ideal world, virtual reality brings with it the exciting potential to make unique and entertaining experiences easily accessible to the masses. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and instead we’ve got researchers leveraging virtual reality hardware to simulate the horrifying experience of suffocating in a fire.
This isn’t the first time researchers have explored ways to upgrade virtual reality hardware to make simulated experiences straight-up horrifying. Last month, a team from Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group revealed an off-the-shelf VR headset enhanced with ultrasonic transducers that could recreate the sensation of touch in and around the wearer’s mouth, but one application of the research featured a gigantic virtual spider dripping with poison that users could feel splashing across their lips. That is not the future we signed up for.
This time, it’s a team of researchers from the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria who seem like they have good intentions, but may have missed the mark, as detailed in a paper published for the recent CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. They created a device called the AirRes Mask that’s designed to be worn alongside a consumer-friendly VR headset like the Meta Quest 2 and serve as an additional way to interact with a virtual experience through the user’s breathing.
The AirRes Mask works in two ways. The first approach, and the one less likely to traumatize users, leverages the mask as a way to monitor their breathing and incorporate it into a VR experience to enhance the feeling of immersion. Applications include simple everyday acts like blowing out a virtual candle, inflating a balloon, or even playing an instrument such as a harmonica using their own breath. The mask can also be used to adapt how the VR experience behaves based on the user’s respiration rate. Hitting the target when firing a virtual arrow from a bow, for example, is made a lot easier when the user holds their breath and steadies themself.
The other approach leverages the mask’s ability to add resistance to the wearer’s ability to breath. Suffocation doesn’t seem like a particularly fun way to escape one’s own reality, but the researchers believe the AirRes Mask could also be used as a more realistic training tool. Firefighters could physically experience the lack of oxygen in a room as a raging fire consumes it, including the simulated side effects of the human body not getting enough oxygen, like the onset of tunnel vision, but without the added risks of a real fire. The mask could make flight simulators feel more realistic too, as the added g-forces of high speed manoeuvres make it harder for a pilot to breath.
It certainly doesn’t sound like as fun a VR experience as swinging a virtual lightsaber to the beat of your favourite song, but as horrifying as it seems, it does help further demonstrate the unique potential of VR, and its ability to sometimes make us feel genuinely uncomfortable without actually putting us in danger.