How VR horror can get a lot scarier, according to the experts of fear

It's going to learn what really makes you scream
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Video game developers have long catered to players with a thirst for fear, but today, with the advent of high-quality VR, the possibilities around horror gaming and experiences have exploded. An already frightening 2D image can now become that much more unnerving and visceral in a 3D immersive environment.

For instance, VR allows us to inhabit the body of a helpless victim rather than simply being an onlooker. You can experience from a first-person perspective what it's like to be eaten alive by zombies, strapped to a gurney at the whim of a deranged robot surgeon, or stare at your psychopathic killer through the eyes of your severed head.

So what will the future of horror VR look like? A panel of developers and a sociologist who specializes in fear discussed the far-reaching possibilities of the genre at the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo. The session — titled 'Virtual Horror vs. Real Terror: How Far Is Too Far in VR?' — covered the aspects of VR that make horror so compelling, and how to build upon what's already been done to provide people with a novel experience.

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"When we are in VR, even more so than in a video game, you get that sense of anything can happen at anytime from any angle," said Robyn Gray, co-founder and creative head of Otherworld Interactive, an independent virtual reality content studio. "It's out of your control, and that suspense really keeps you on edge which is really, really powerful."

When it comes to effectively scaring people, it seems like plausibility illusion plays a bigger role.

According to computer scientist Mel Slater, two factors can explain why we respond realistically to situations and events in VR despite knowing that we're in a virtual world. The first component is called place illusion, or a strong illusion of being in a place in spite of realizing that you aren't there. Plausibility illusion — the second component — is the illusion that what appears to be happening is actually happening. While place illusion is more of a static property of an experience, plausibility illusion is concerned with the dynamics of events and responses.

When it comes to effectively scaring people, as Gray suggests, it seems like plausibility illusion plays a bigger role. A recent study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior measured players' fright reactions and coping strategies while playing a survival horror zombie game in VR. The researchers found that plausibility illusion elements induced more fear than place illusion elements.

One way to get a more realistic response from VR involves tracking a player's emotional response throughout gameplay. At the Los Angeles Expo, the panel discussed the possibilities of VR when combined with biofeedback in order to create a personalized fear experience for every person. Such adaptive gaming, some in the industry believe, will become the future of horror VR.

"I think the fastest way to get [to an individualized experience] would be to have AI monitoring you along with biofeedback, which of course gets into all sorts of biometric data privacy concerns," said Robert Watts, co-founder and managing partner at Light Sail VR. "But as the technology gets better, we'll take those tools and use them to get more insight into what truly scares you."

A fear of rats

How VR horror can get a lot scarier, according to the experts of fear

In 2016, the horror game Nevermind became the first commercially available biofeedback-enhanced VR experience that incorporated players' heart rate from their Apple Watch or Garmin heart rate monitor. With increases in heart rate, the game responds with strange visuals and eerie music to reflect the player's growing anxiety. In one scene, a kitchen is being flooded with milk, flowing faster as the player's heart rate goes up.

Some studies with traditional video games suggest that using the emotional state of the player to manipulate gameplay can make frightening things seem scarier. One experiment timed scary events to occur when players felt the most anxious as opposed to neutral, finding a higher intensity of fear response as a result.

"I think that it's so important for VR developers to understand how the body and brain respond to stress, and to also appreciate that it is very individualized," Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, told Wareable. "I think the biofeedback piece is going to be an amazing opportunity for horror VR."

It's so important for VR developers to understand how the body and brain respond to stress

Countless scientific studies have explored the fascinating emotion of fear, with several focusing on why fear is such a personal experience. For instance, researchers have found that we can learn to be scared of things if they become associated with an aversive event — a phenomenon called Pavlovian fear conditioning. Evolution has reinforced this type of conditioning in animals to promote survival in the face of threats.

One famous experiment from 1919 involved teaching an infant to become deathly afraid of rats. Psychologist John Watson made a loud, jarring sound by striking a steel bar with a hammer every time he presented a white rat to "Little Albert", who initially showed no fear of the animal. Eventually, Little Albert would cry and crawl away at the mere sight of a rat and other furry creatures.

So how can VR developers tap into the nuances of a person's individual fears? Gray mentioned how games could feasibly ask players during the opening about which thing scares them most to design a bespoke experience.

"We could give you a selection — so we can have these particular things that we're spawning are spiders because you said you hated spiders in this opening, or maybe they're tiny clowns with chainsaws, because that's like your thing," she said.

In addition, tailoring the scariness to each person can create something for everyone, whether they want the ultimate in extreme terror or something more tame. When it comes to a location-based shared VR experience, perhaps different levels of fright can be applied to adults versus children.

"I could be doing an experience with my son or daughter, and I could be getting the R-rated version with blood and guts and nastiness, while my daughter or son is getting the more sanitized version," said Christian Dieckmann, chief strategy officer at 3D Live. "My daughter is getting unicorns and ponies or whatever she wants to see, but we can actually be in the same shared environment."

One member of the audience felt like his horror tolerance had become so high that nothing he's seen in VR has scared him yet. He wanted the developers to make the horror VR equivalent of "the extreme hot sauce that only the people who really like hot sauce care about." So being able to ramp up the bloodcurdling elements to eleven could please some horror aficionados, particularly seasoned ones like him, who have become harder to scare.

Of course the question then is: once you've increased that threshold with VR, where do you go next?


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Meeri works as a science writer who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, The Guardian, Philly Voice, and Oncology Times. She writes weekly for The Washington Post’s health/medicine blog “To Your Health.” 

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