In an earlier article we wondered whether Daredevil has a harder time keeping his balance because he’s blind. Blindness raises questions about balance because human balance rests on the complex interaction of visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. Any problems Daredevil may have with balance stem from the fact that his balance system has no visual input.
What happens when visual input is present but is inconsistent with the information coming from proprioception and the vestibular sense? This is the problem faced by users of the new virtual reality (VR) systems that are forthcoming from Facebook (Oculus Rift), Sony (Playstation VR) and Valve/HTC (Vive). These VR systems replace visual input from the real world with a 360-degree view of a virtual world. When it works as intended, the results can be thrilling. When the visual input from the virtual world clashes with the information you’re getting from your vestibular and proprioceptive systems about where your body is and how it’s moving, the results can range from nausea to loss of balance.
I’ve written a feature article for Ars Technica about how VR affects balance. The article pays special attention to how VR may affect balance for older users whose balance system may already be compromised but the challenges posed to balance by VR affect users of all ages. If you are interested in VR in general or in how the technology may affect users, please take a look at “Will the new VR gear trip up older gamers?” on the Ars Technica website. And if you enjoy the Info Monkey and are unfamiliar with Ars Technica, check it out. They present a wealth of tech, science and gaming information that is in-depth and interesting without any of the shallow, mindless, click-bait blather you can find elsewhere.
A reader has added a long and detailed comment about how he manipulated visual information to improve his balance in training for rock climbing. It speaks directly to paragraph in the Ars Technica article that points out that experience with VR is likely to mitigate balance problems because it is well known that balance in a balance demanding task improves with practice. The comment is well worth reading.
I read your article on virtual reality as well as the article on Daredevil having a harder time keeping his balance. Something that few people realize is that mountaineers and rock climbers have to deal with the same thing that Daredevil has to deal with. In June 1973, I was on top of Half Dome (a sort of famous mountain in Yosemite National Park), and had to face the problem of being unable to stand on the edge of a cliff. This seems to be a common problem for flat landers, but I wanted to be a mountaineer. Half Dome was the first mountain that I had ever climbed. I had recently spent a lot of money on a backpack and sleeping bag and other accessories for backpacking, so being unable to stand on the edge of a cliff was just not acceptable. The first time to the top of Half Dome, I thought it was just a fluke, but the second time two weeks later I had to face the problem. I noticed at the time that I was fine until I went up to the edge. When I got to the edge it felt like something was trying to pull me over the edge. A normal person would have just assumed that they were afraid of heights and left it at that. Not knowing that I had Asperger’s Syndrome at the time, I went ahead and figured out what the problem was. The first thing that I tried was walking up to the edge with my eyes open and then closed my eyes before I felt the pull. I guess I should add that the pull that I felt did not start right away but soon after I got to the edge. It also seemed to happen after I looked down. So it was a revelation that I could stand there on the edge of the cliff with my eyes closed and not have any problems. I might have stood there for about thirty seconds when I decided to open my eyes and see what happened. I kept my focus on the horizon for a little bit, and then I looked down. As soon as I looked down I lost my balance and had to collapse onto the rock. That old adage “don’t look down” made a lot of sense.
At this time in my life I was 21 years old, knew nothing about the balance system in the human body, and my balance skills would have to be called average. From the above experiment I was able to conclude that the eyes were the problem. So all I had to do was “disconnect” my eyes and I would not feel like I was being pulled over the cliff’s edge when I looked down. It wasn’t too hard to figure out that to “disconnect” my eyes I could just close them, except I had to keep them open. I moved away from the cliff (the level area on top of Half Dome could cover multiple football fields) and practiced looking over the edge of a cliff with my eyes closed, except I wasn’t near the edge of the cliff so if I fell over I wouldn’t be seriously hurt. I focused on maintaining my balance. By putting one leg behind me I could lean over far enough to get my head past the toes of my leading foot. I did not have to practice for very long, maybe less than five minutes. In theory I felt pretty confident. In practice, while looking over the edge of a real cliff, it took a fair amount of concentration to keep the eyes “disconnected” from my balance while they were open. But, by focusing on the pressure points on my feet and occasionally putting my eyes out of focus or closing them I was able to keep my balance while looking over the edge of the cliff. It is a skill that was moderately easy for me to learn in a short amount of time. In a short while I was even able to walk along the edge of the cliff while looking down to make sure I stayed on the edge.
Another factor to consider is that you can improve your balance by not using your eyes. Sometime in the early eighties I was working out at a community college trying to get in shape for mountaineering and rock climbing. I was using the PAR course that was there. The last exercise on the PAR course was a balance beam which was some 4X4’s raised off the ground in a zig zag pattern. Right next to the balance beam were some ropes for climbing. Since I wanted stronger arms I climbed the rope after doing the PAR course. Over a period of about 6 months, I went from climbing the rope 2 times to climbing it 5 times. To give my arms a chance to recover between rope climbs I walked the balance beam. When I first started walking the balance beam I kept my eyes open and walked forward. Then I walked it backwards. When that got too easy, I walked it backwards with my eyes closed. Closing my eyes made it much more difficult. Over time it became easier. Strangely, rock climbing became easier not because of the rope climbing but because of the balance beam. I was also a much better cross country skier. So while a blind person might have more trouble balancing than somebody with sight, a person with normal vision can improve their balance with their eyes closed and have a real boost in activities that require skill, especially balance.
Have you noticed the difference between your approach and mine? Your approach seems to imply that if you muck with the system you will have problems, which is quite true, whereas my approach is to muck with the system to solve problems. Of course when I was solving my problems I had no idea what the system was to begin with. Also, the balance beam thing was totally accidental since my main focus was increasing my arm strength. In fairness to your implication, the increase in difficulty when I started closing my eyes on the balance beam was huge. I was falling off multiple times each time I got on it when I first started walking it with my eyes closed. The only reason I stuck with it was because of my fanatical belief that the rope climbing would improve my rock climbing. My main reason for writing to you is to suggest that there are potential solutions for people who lose their balance while in a virtual reality environment. Some solutions can be quick while other solutions can take months. It might also suggest to the VR programmers to try to maintain an artificial horizon like they do for pilots flying a plane on instruments. Anybody trying to sell VR to the general public might want to familiarize themselves with techniques to improve balance. They might make more sales.
Do I know what I am talking about? Well I am still alive in spite of the risks I took. I received a degree in occupational therapy in the eighties. Sensory integration was the fad in OT at that time so we had to learn about the vestibular system and ocular righting reaction. But sensory integration was to be applied to children with developmental disorders, so it took me more than a decade after learning about SI and the ocular righting reaction to connect it to my experience on Half Dome.
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