VR and Flight Phobia

I have a fear of flying. The kind of phobia that has me up at night in the days leading up to a flight and gripping the arm rests in terror. It’s an irrational fear that developed sometime in the last five years – but it exists. I’ve tried a bunch of different things, meditation, Xanax, distracting games and calming music, but nothing has helped much. Today I tried using VR to help me cope.  I discovered that it did help, in a surprisingly measurable way.

During a flight I can break out in hives, my chest tightens up, and it feels hard to breathe, think, even answer simple questions.  My heart races so fast it feels like it will beat right out of my chest.  My hope was that taking VR onto the plane would help me in a few ways.  I was optimistic that the illusion of expansive space could counter my claustrophobia from being penned into a cramped compartment.  I hoped the immersive nature of VR would help me transport myself someplace besides an airplane.  I’m not above a little escapism.

I had two flights, totaling about seven hours in the air from San Francisco to Fort Myers.  On the first flight, before we even took off, I started feeling the tightness in my chest.  I was jittery and cotton-mouthed with nerves, but hopeful.  My heart was doing jumping jacks as usual.

So much for a window seat.

I was off to a bit of a rough start.  My “window” seat was a lie.  Instead of a window I got a blank wall.  I depend on that little square foot portal to the outside world.  Looking out the window is one of the little rituals that gets me through a flight.  I check it  to make sure we’re level to the horizon. When I’m trapped on an airplane with no where to look I get dizzy.  But today VR would be my only window to any world beyond seat 12A.  Once we reached cruising altitude I slipped my headset on and fired up a game hoping to forget about my surroundings.

Despite the fact that the headset was basically jammed up against my face (literally my phone was suspended inches from my eyes), the effect was the exact opposite.  The parallax of VR and orientation tracking harmonized to give the illusion of open space.  It was like being in my own personal holodeck.  Instead of staring at the back of 11A, I looked into the distance of a city stretched ahead of me.

Usually I’ll play a cell phone game or read a book on a flight, but these don’t mask the fact that my body is catapulting untethered 35,000 feet above the ground.  I can’t ignore the fact that I’m on a plane.  With my overly active imagination, every dip, every blip and hum of the engine triggers invasive thoughts of plane engines cutting and the cabin dipping into a dive.  Today, for a bit, I did find myself forgetting that I was on a plane.  It wasn’t the whole time, mostly just when the game got intense.  I think these spells of deep immersion let me reset my nerves to calm down a bit.  With a handheld game, I still see the plane around me.  Of all the light hitting my eye, a small portion represents the distraction.  In the headset, virtually every photon hitting my retina reflected a synthesized world.  Foam around the periphery even filtered out light pollution from the real world.  What I saw is what I elected to see, and that gave me a sense of control.

The second flight had more turbulence than usual.  The captain apologized, let us know about an alternative altitude we would take to help with the rough winds.  He had the attendants stay seated when they would normally run beverage service.  This is when I would usually be freaking out, but I noticed something I hadn’t thought to predict.  Usually during turbulence I’m gripping the armrest in terror, awaiting death.  My hands sweat bullets.  After finishing a full game in VR, my hands were dry.  This was pretty shocking, and is the most compelling evidence to me that there’s something real here.   I was getting a break from fight or flight mode.

Wearing the headset, I saw a glittering sky above me, a mirrored aqueduct below, and dreamy buildings of an ancient city on either side.  The game surrounded me, no matter where I looked.  Years ago I visited sensory deprivation tank.  The vacuum of sensation left me alone with my thoughts.  VR seems to lie on the opposite end of the sensory spectrum.  It’s immediate, attention grabbing, and leaves little room for inner dialog.  On this flight, that’s exactly what I was looking for.

By the end of the second flight I was pretty excited.  Hands dryer.  Heart steadier.  My fear wasn’t completely neutralized, but the flights were definitely more tolerable.  I’m kind of looking forward to my next flight back home.

So this initial test seemed great.  I was engaged, distracted, transported somewhere I wanted to be.  But while I love a good anecdote as much as the next person, what’s needed next is actual data. I’m convinced there’s something here, but before prescribing this as a phobic’s panacea, we need research.  I’d like to see a comparison of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response for people on comparable flights both with and without VR. This could be measured by galvanic skin response, basically checking for sweaty palms.  It’s possible you could even control for similar flights by gauging turbulence using the accelerometer in the HMD.

Is it possible that the phenomenon of visual precedence, the brain’s prioritization of visual stimuli over conflicting sensory information, helped?  The roar of the engine and the rocking turbulence didn’t bother me as much as usual.  Even though my ears and my body were telling me I was on a plane, my eyes told me a different story. I even noticed that some turbulence during the boss fight was … kind of fun? It almost felt like the rumble of a gamepad.  That sensory override might be illuminated by more research.

I suspect the feeling of agency, tackling specific goals and focusing my attention on missions in the game, also helped.  There’s a feeling of powerlessness inherent to being a passenger.  This probably isn’t specific to VR, but I bet most any game would help passengers regain a sense of control.

In any case, as much as I want this to be a real solution, my optimism is tempered by a few things.  This was a super biased experiment.  I really wanted it to work!  I only tried it on one set of flights, and maybe the novelty of it was what I was responding to.  I’ll be flying again on the 26th, so I’ll see if the benefits persist.  People have asked me whether the cabin pressure, G-force, and other flight sensations can mess with your vestibular system in conjunction with VR.  I didn’t get sick, but I also didn’t wear the headset during takeoff or landing and I didn’t play longer than an hour or so each flight.
Going forward, I plan to try a bunch of other apps and games and get a sense for what helps me most.    I was comforted by the familiarity playing my own game, Bazaar, so I might suggest that people with similar phobias find a favorite VR app before taking VR on a flight.  I’d love to hear from other folks coping with aerophobia. Does VR help? Which apps help most?


Edit: I’ve been getting recommendations from other folks who found that VR helped them relax on a flight, too!  I’ll keep a list here in case you need to load up before your next trip:

  • Eve – Gunjack
  • Bombsquad
  • Smash Hit VR
  • Oculus Arcade game: Pac Man, Sonic, Galaga, etc.
  • Bazaar
  • VR Cinema – load up a movie



Bazaar Patch

V1.3 Patch Notes:

Major Improvements

  • New feature! A mission box gives you tasks and rewards you with diamonds. 36 new missions to play.
  • New diamond store! Use your diamonds to purchases 24 new upgrades.
  • New items! 5 new items to find.
  • Added optional gamepad support! The shoulder buttons rotate the view, the left button opens the inventory, the top button opens the mission box, and right button opens map.
  • Added 8 new tutorials.
  • Improved game balance: The food meter drains faster and some encounters show up sooner.
  • Updates from John Carmack’s feedback: Alpha-to-coverage and MSAA 4x on S6, fixed some thin UI lines, fixed splash screen gradient, added gamepad support, better raycasting. Thanks John!
  • Lots and lots and lots of art and gameplay improvements.

Minor Improvements

  • New art: banner, some new constellations, item damage states
  • New anims: item breaks, item go aways, croc/snake blocked, glass break
  • Can block monkey with shield
  • Firework for returning relics
  • New items: large coin stack, croc stakes, snake stakes, banana, diamond
  • Inventory use timer is much faster

Apologies for the potato cam. 😀

John Carmack Reviewed Bazaar

“Public VR critique #5: Bazaar

When an earlier version was in the VR Jam, I gave it high marks for implementation quality, but the gameplay didn’t really grab me. The commercial version is much improved, and I played through to level nine for this critique.

The rendering is all well done. Going with stylized, rather simple visuals and keeping it clean has been a good strategy for several VR games.

The bright, saturated colors are a distinctive choice, but you should be aware that it highlights the 60 hz refresh rate limitation on GearVR (versus 75 on DK2 and 90 on CV1); people that are flicker sensitive will have more eye strain with it. The general rule is that bright colors towards the periphery of your vision are the most problematic – white clouds in the sky are a problem for many games. You might consider having some dimmer districts, to let the eyes rest a bit, and it would also be a navigation aid.

One of the few things that stood out poorly was the tattered edges on the scrolls. Alpha-test/discard is used widely in games, but it has much larger drawbacks in VR, where the pixel-level aliasing stands in stark contrast to the MSAA (that everyone should be using!) on the rest of the world. The highest quality solution is to use blending, but that requires guaranteeing draw orders, which can be difficult in dynamic environments. A solution with no downside is to leave blending off and use “alpha to coverage”, which converts the pixel alpha into an MSAA coverage mask. Only discard when alpha equals zero. Most GPUs helpfully add a good dither, so 4x MSAA looks very good for feathered edges. The precision limits start to show up with multiple layers and subtle gradients, but it is an underused technique. Perhaps even easier would be to just throw a hundred triangles at the scroll and actually model the tatters. It would be a little stylized looking, but that isn’t usually a bad thing for VR.

Almost all games do this, but the loading screen is rendered at a choppy framerate, which can allow you to see it clipped off if you are looking away, then turn back to center quickly at the right time. The most efficient thing to do is send the loading screen texture directly to vrapi_SubmitFrame() a single time, and let Async Time Warp take care of repositioning it while the game loads. We should provide some stock sample code to do this.

On the extremely-nitpicky list, the loading screen images didn’t fade completely out to black before the edges, leaving a slightly visible edge effect on the bottom.

Text, one of my hot-button topics, was well presented throughout the game, only showing a few words or a sentence at a time, in a generously sized font.

There were a few UI elements with thin line borders that showed a bit of texture colorspace aliasing. All lines should be at least two texels wide to minimize this. Using all sRGB textures and eye buffers also helps, but if a project didn’t start out that way, it is hard to retrofit.

The 3D gaze cursor would sometimes be drawn incorrectly partially occluding nearer surfaces like the carpet when the center trace is just barely missing it. Doing four corner ray traces and taking the nearest depth would fix it for almost all cases, but leaving depth test enabled when drawing is usually a good idea.

I played my first session with headphones, and while there was some panning of the sound sources, it didn’t provide a lot of localization. The Oculus Audio SDK is great for this, but we haven’t released the library for native code yet, only Unity / Unreal engine integrations. If any native teams are interested in this, let me know and I’ll prod the right people.

Gaze-only controls are a large design challenge, but they work pretty well here, and allow long play times without getting a tired arm holding it up by the touchpad or requiring a gamepad. Time-on-target is a terrible UI when it is taking the place of a button (the “zero button mouse” problem of Kinect), but when it is a fundamental part of the gameplay it works out ok. It might still be nice to support joypads and the touchpad to act as a single “yes” button to accelerate some of the acknowledgement timers. That would be a play advantage, but it would make the player feel more directly in control. Firing the crossbow and perhaps a few other things should not be accelerated, but using things from your inventory could be make a lot more pleasant, especially when in time-stressful situations. It is never good to let a player think (rightly or wrongly) that they failed at something due to the UI being in their way.

It might be better to move the inventory chest to the front of the carpet. I only recently appreciated that I sit up a lot straighter than many when I am playing in a swivel chair; many people are playing with fairly slouched posture, which limits how far they can comfortably look down.

The angular notchy turns of the carpet felt jarring. It is important to keep the viewpoint movement linear for comfort, but the carpet could bank and slide more smoothly below the view.

The testing for item pickups ignores geometry that may occlude the items. That is understandable, but sometimes I was pulling items through blank walls. It felt like it was coming all the way from the next canal over, but it may have still been a local occlusion.

The level play times are good, and it was nice to see the available items continuing to expand through all the levels I played.

This is a bit strange coming from me, but being in VR, I wanted to feel a bit more lore in the game. The visuals and audio make an interesting setting, and being “in it” makes me want to know more about it than when I just look at a puzzle game on a 2D screen. A deft design touch with some names, iconography, and maybe a little voice acting could hint at a richness that you might choose to explore in the future.” – John Carmack

See the original post here.