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Remote-controlled humans enhance immersive games

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  Published:  August 10, 2005 New Scientist Magazine by Will Knight

Remote controlled humans might sound a bizarre and nightmarish prospect, but Japanese researchers hope to harness the trick for computer gaming.

By remotely stimulating a person's vestibular system - the fluid-filled tubes in the inner ear that guide their sense of balance - with electrodes placed on the skin just below the ear, researchers at NTT's research laboratories in Kanagawa have found a way to turn humans into oversized radio controlled vehicles. See the system in action, here (8 MB, Mpg format).

The technique, known as galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS), unbalances a person so that they automatically veer left or right in an attempt to rebalance themselves. The NTT team developed a headset and a control unit similar to that used with remote-controlled toy cars.

The research project went on public display at the 2005 SIGGRAPH, in Los Angeles, US from 2 August. Volunteers were given a chance to experience GVS and, to the amusement of other visitors, were seen careening around the show floor under demonstrators' control.

Gravity shift

Taro Maeda and colleagues at NTT believe the system could primarily be used to make computer games feel more realistic. In a driving game, for example, a player could feel gravity shift as their car hurtles through a tight bend.

"I do think this could find an application in computer gaming," says James Collins, an expert in GVS at Boston University in the US. "You could definitely use it to give the illusion of motion when going through some virtual environment."

"It certainly has some potential in this area," adds Brian Day, an expert at the Institute of Neurology, at University College London. However, Day warns that some evidence suggests extended use of vestibular stimulation at high current can cause tissue damage. "I would imagine that regulatory bodies would not allow GVS to be used in an uncontrolled way," he told New Scientist.

GVS may also find use as a medical therapy, helping patients who have an impaired sense of balance. "There certainly remains an opportunity in the medical sphere," Collins adds.

Collins also points out that a US patent already exists for using GVS as a virtual reality tool. The approach was pioneered in the late 1990s by a company called Virtual Motion, he says.


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