Closer Than You Think

The Wild World of Virtual Reality

As consumer costs for virtual-based products slide, Scott Kuhl’s interest in VR ramps up. “The technology used to be so expensive, only large companies could afford to use it. Now it’s on the brink of becoming more affordable and accessible, and we’re looking at how to make the systems useful for more and more users,” Kuhl explains.

It’s on the brink of becoming more affordable and accessible, and we’re looking at how to make the systems useful for more and more users.

If you think virtual reality can’t impact your everyday life, Kuhl says: think again. “Let’s say you’re in the market for a new home. You’re in Manhattan, but your home prospect is in Brazil. Virtual reality can be used to tour houses from anywhere in the world.”

Of course you’ll need to be able to judge size correctly. A typical problem with VR—much like with car mirrors—is that objects appear closer than they actually are. Kuhl, who’s worked in virtual-reality spheres since his PhD, goes on to explain how his research team intentionally distorts graphics to counter the issue. Newer, cheaper displays—like the Oculus Rift—appear to have reduced or eliminated the nagging distortion problem altogether. Are the newer head-mounted displays (HMD)better? Kuhl and his team will take a closer look.

Today’s gamers aren’t content sitting with a handheld control.  They want to slap on an HMD and explore worlds under sea and in outer space. Until they crash. Into their living room wall. Solving this challenge not only has gaming implications, but safety, too. Together with PhD student Ruimin Zhang, Kuhl is studying how to walk freely around a big, virtual space in a tiny, confined room—like a dorm room. “It’s a given you’ll run into walls. We’re looking at tricks we can integrate without disrupting the user experience. For example, perhaps one real step equals two virtual steps . . . we can amplify user movement.”


After the gamer graduates, they may want to wear their HMD into the workplace. Kuhl says it can happen. The advantage of wearing one at work? Virtual screens and lots of them. “Just as iPads haven’t replaced desktops, I don’t think everyone will jump on board wearing a head-mounted display. But when they do, they’ll need to type, read, and talk.” Kuhl’s collaborating with colleague and text-entry expert Keith Vertanen and PhD student James Walker to address future VR needs.

“I never thought I’d be working with a text-entry researcher on projects. But that’s the nature of this work. Immersive virtual environments will impact the training, prototyping, education, and entertainment of the future and it requires a team of experts to navigate it.”