We've heard the phrase "mind over body," numerous times, but what exactly does that mean? For human research subjects participating in an experiment at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Switzerland, it means that their minds were tricked to feel something through the use of virtual reality.
The volunteers were each given a 3D high-resolution virtual reality helmet that displayed an avatar that represented a standard human figure. The scientists then used robots to stroke the back or leg of the subjects while the helmet displayed a red dot that moved on the same areas of the avatar. In order to get an idea of how these volunteers perceived their bodies, researchers then asked them to imagine dropping a ball and speaking up when that imaginary ball would hit the floor. Researchers followed this by asking research participants about their experience with the avatar, as well as where they perceived the touch to have come from. Finally, the scientists measured the temperature of the volunteers' skin on various points across their backs and legs.
After looking over the results, the scientists discovered something interesting. The volunteers were not only confused about where their own body was, but over 70% also reported that the touches they had felt on their own body were in the areas they had seen on the avatar, and not where the robot had actually touched them. Researchers also discovered a decrease in temperature on the participants' skin, which suggests that when the brain is presented with something like virtual reality that challenges our notions of what is and isn't real, the perception of the real body changes and creates a temperature fluctuation.
Could these ideas offer some new insight into VR gaming? This research could make it possible to create a game world that feels real while you're in it. Imagine exploring Rapture from the BioShock universe and feeling tonic injection jabs and the adrenaline rush that follows them. Or if a game like Hello Kitty Online is more your style, imagine all the furry hugs you could get from fellow gamers. It certainly seems that the future of virtual reality has arrived, and it will be fun and probably just a little bit terrifying.
Researchers, of course, haven't thought that far ahead. They plan to use this study to further the development of prosthetics, as well as potentially help those with mental disorders like schizophrenia. But this is science and, as always, the possibilities are endless.