Virtual reality showed itself to be a not-ready-for-prime-time technology when it debuted in the 1980s. As Stephen Ellis, head of the Advanced Displays and Spatial Perception Laboratory at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains in a recent agency analysis of VR, “Helmets and their optics were too heavy. Computers were too slow. Touch-feedback systems often didn’t work. The only thing consistently real about VR was headaches and motion sickness–common side effects of ’80s-era helmets.”

But faster computers and lighter, smaller electronics now have NASA excited about using VR in the space program. For instance, astronauts could use VR technology in a humanlike robot that performs repairs on the outside of their spacecraft.



But whether VR is used in outer space for exploration or here on Earth for entertainment or education, NASA has some advice for doing VR properly. For one thing, NASA has found that “self-image matters. One study showed that people wearing VR helmets like to glance down and see their own virtual body. It helps ground them in the simulation. And the body should be correct: arms, legs, torso; male for men; female for women.” Minimal delays in a VR system are also important. When a person moves his head, for instance, how much of a lag is there between the movement and the virtual view in a pair of goggles or helmet? NASA has found that for movement within the virtual environment to feel natural, the delay needs to be less than 15 milliseconds. Sound is crucial, too. When grabbing a virtual object, for instance, “the immediate ‘click’ sound of contact enhances the user’s tactile perception of realism.”



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