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Virtual Reality in Human Factors Research

so much more than driving simulators

by Philipp Maruhn & Lorenz Prasch
In human factors research, the term virtual reality (VR) is usually simply equated with simulators, such as flight or driving simulators. But taking a closer look shows that this simple notion should be abandoned. New technologies open up many new setups that enable and simplify the exploration of human-machine interaction.
a man in a driving simulator wearing vr goggles

The metaverse is on everyone's lips and topics like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are gaining momentum—again (again? check out A Brief History of Virtual Reality). This seems the perfect time to discuss the role of virtual worlds in human factors research and what their potential looks like in the future.

Putting humans at the center of a new reality—a core vision of human factors—is now possible in even more fundamental ways than before. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Normally, when people talk about potential, there is a graph somewhere that shows exponential growth. Of course, we are happy to oblige. We took a look at publications with the keywords AR or VR in academic journals with a focus on human factors. You will quickly notice that the application of virtual display technologies has a long tradition. And why is that so? Because they are so darn practical. They enable user-centered testing and development from the earliest stages of the design process, thus decreasing the cost of testing different alternatives. This ultimately results in faster iterations and therefore more user-centered results (which—as we can all agree on—is always awesome).

a line chart of publications in human factors journals with keywords VR or AR
Amount of papers published with the keywords VR or AR in academic journals with human factors focus

But a second observation can be derived from the data: since 2013, with the advent of a new generation of displays, there has been a virtual tidal wave of new publications. Some of these have the technology itself as the subject of their research, some just use it to achieve more meaningful results. Both are worth a look.

Especially the latter, using some form of simulator in which you can see your own body (i.e. augmented virtuality (AV), Here is our take on the definition of AR,AV,VR, etc), has a great tradition in human factors research. Three examples are driving, flight and pedestrian simulators:

These simulations—while offering very high fidelity and good immersive experiences for research and training—are also very complex to set up and difficult to maintain.The sheer amount of space they occupy additionally makes them costly in terms of real estate as well as nigh impossible to use for distributed presentations.

This is the way

HMDs are the new kids on the block

Recently, advances in HMDs have enabled more complex and simultaneously more simple, adaptable and logistically practical setups. Instead of people having to come to a dedicated simulation facility, these headsets can—depending on the specific use-case—simply be packed up and shipped around the globe. Besides, the entire environment is often easier to adapt and thus more practical for rapid design iterations:

Closing thoughts

now what?

As is apparent, XR (AR, AV and VR) is a tool that has enormous potential for Human Factors Research, which is probably the reason why it has been used for quite some time now. But the setups of the past almost always had the caveat of being complex, bulky and difficult to adapt. This is the main reason why they were mostly used in a pure research context and never really made the leap into consumer-grade product development. New display technologies, namely head-mounted displays (HMDs), however, offer the opportunity to make XR more accessible. This is true not only for research purposes, but also for showcases, market research, or fast paced user-centered design cycles.

Current HMDs have built-in eye-tracking systems, which makes them particularly interesting for human factors research. In combination with stereo cameras, current HMDs can also be used as AR glasses, which significantly increases the range of application. This is why we are convinced that the use of HMDs will increase even further, gradually replacing the old technology, even though "big" simulators will always keep their raison d'être for certain research questions or training. Access to an immersive experience is now just a parcel away.

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