Even the Oculus Rift has an uncanny valley. Though Facebook’s virtual reality headset can transport you into ultra-realistic digital worlds, there’s still something subtly off about them you can’t quite put your finger on. As part of a project for the University of Art and Design in Lausanne (more commonly known as ECAL), interactive designer Simon de Diesbach has tried to take a running leap over VR’s uncanny valley. Meet the OccultUs, a project that augments virtual reality with real-world sounds provided in real time by a robotic sound effects booth.
Its goal? To scare the crap out of you. “With the OccultUs, I wanted to immerse the user in a sensory experience made up of two distinct realities blended together: the palpable reality of the ‘real’ world, and the simulated reality of VR,” de Diesbach tells me. And what’s the best way to do that? Make people scared.
When you put on an Oculus Rift, you enclose yourself in another world, but you also become blind and deaf in this one. You’re vulnerable. The OccultUs leverages the vulnerability of a participant to create a heightened experience: a participant who puts on the OccultUs must first sit in a circle surrounded by weird machines of unknown function, then put on a headset, still not entirely sure what they do.
As a user looks at objects in the netherworld-like realm of OccultUs’s cyberspace, robots surrounding him or her in the real world spring into action, dropping ball bearings and shattering glasses. Because they’re real, those sounds are loud and clear in a way that even top-of-the-line audio setups can’t be.
“The sound is just pure,” de Diesbach says. “Even when you’re putting on an Oculus, you don’t expect the sounds to be that clear and loud.” And because the sounds are so real, loud, and startling, you are less likely to notice the slight visual imperfections in the Oculus Rift’s virtual world. A tiny dose of reality smooths out the uncanny valley’s edges.
De Diesbach doesn’t know if the technique used by the OccultUs is likely to catch on, although he plans on expanding the device to increase the diversity of sounds a user hears when they put on the headset. But even as humanity collectively embarks into cyberspace, OccultUs reminds us that real sensations are still more evocative than digital ones. Perhaps the most interesting design to come out of the virtual age to come will seamlessly blend the two.