Johnson has been challenging the rules of consumer VR from the beginning — when virtual reality hit the mainstream last year, he spent 24 hours immersed in a mix of Rift, Vive and Gear VR experiences, setting an unofficial record for longest time in virtual reality. This year, he doubled that effort, recruiting Sarah Jones from Coventry University to join him in two days of extreme VR immersion — breaking for only five minutes each hour to record vlogs and use the facilities.
The experiment was designed to question the arbitrary limits of VR-use time and help expose virtual reality to a wider consumer audience, but it wasn’t a PR stunt for any specific headset manufacturer. “In fact, it was quite the opposite,” he says. Every company he invited to participate in the project turned him down. “Mostly because they thought we’d die,” he joked.
The fears of the likes of Oculus VR and HTC weren’t completely unfounded. Johnson didn’t just spend two days watching movies and playing games in virtual reality — he wore VR goggles while driving go-karts, getting tattoos and walking across the wings of an airplane in-flight. “We wanted it to be as physical as possible,” he says. “How extreme do you need to get with the physical additions to VR to make it feel real?” It sounds almost like a silly question, but when you’re wearing a headset that partially blinds you to your environment, the influence of your mixed reality could have unexpected results.
Johnson and Jones’ wind-walking adventure, for instance, was seen through a GearVR’s pass-through camera — but despite the physical exertion of fighting the wind on the wing of a plane, the experience wasn’t completely real. “It still didn’t feel real to us with what we were seeing,” he says, “but the movement — the buffeting and forcing yourself against the wind, they were the things that physically added the extra dimension.” They just couldn’t see well enough through the GearVR to get the full experience. Johnson thinks it might have been better if the headset had been displaying a VR dragon ride. “If everything you were seeing felt real, that would all be amazing.”
Go-karting fared a little better — the limited view of the GearVR’s pass-through camera gave the drivers’ vision a lower framerate and letterboxing but didn’t seem to hamper the experience in the same way. “It’s amazing that our brains just corrected and we got used to seeing that view,” Johnson says. “We were going pretty quickly around the go-karting track, not hitting anything — though with really reduced visibility.”
These spectacle events are novel, but some of the more interesting results came from the smaller experiments. Johnson wore a VR headset to a tattoo parlor to see if the distraction of a false reality could dull the pain of being branded with a nerdy Apple tattoo in the real world. It did.
After briefly removing the headset to measure his pain threshold in the real world, Johnson spent the rest of his tattoo session playing Gunjack. “If the headset off was my 10 benchmark,” he said, giving the pain a number, “It came down to like a six or a seven. It really did seem to have some effect.” According to his Apple Watch, his heart rate dropped in VR too, averaging at 74 beats per minute in the headset to 103 without.
Living in VR drastically changed mundane everyday life, too. Having a face-to-face conversation with anybody meant logging into Facebook Spaces or another social-VR app, and sleeping was an altogether different kind of experience.
“When you wake up in VR, you just believe everything,” he explains. Normally, virtual reality is a conscious choice, but if you wake up in a simulation, surrounded by dinosaurs and spaceships, you don’t’ have time to question your reality as you regain consciousness. “It’s kind of like waking up in an unfamiliar hotel room. You may not know where you are or what the timezone is, but you just believe you’re in a hotel room. Why would you not?”
Despite breaking every VR health-and-safety guideline imaginable, Johnson and Jones walked away from the experiment relatively unscathed. They learned, at worst, that watching a 360-degree movie in a car is a nauseating experience — but that doesn’t mean their extended time in VR didn’t have consequences.
Johnson admits his vision without glasses was slightly more blurry for a few days after the experience, but it was the physical pain that bothered him most. “The bridge of my nose got bruised,” he said, “And Sarah’s cheeks have kind of permanent red marks on them.” If the health and safety warnings were right, it wasn’t because of the risk of experiencing altered-reality for long periods — it was because the headsets were never designed to be worn indefinitely. “I think we’re just physically glad to be out,” he concluded. “If you had done anything for two straight days, you’d just be glad to be out.”