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Ambiotherm may look goofy, but it lets you feel the warmth of a virtual sun

[CHI 2017] Ambiotherm: Enhancing Presence in VR by Simulating Real-World Environmental Conditions
Virtual reality’s goal is to transport you to other worlds and make the illusion as convincing as possible. A bit like the early days of flight, when a wide range of weird flying machines were tried out, here in 2017 researchers are exploring all manner of off-the-wall ideas to make VR that bit more realistic.

The latest? A virtual add-on called Ambiotherm, which mimics the feeling of the wind and sun on your face and neck by… well, blowing air and pumping heat in your direction.

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Created at the National University of Singapore, Ambiotherm is an accessory that clips on to the bottom of existing headsets. The front section boasts two fans mounted on servo-motors, while a temperature module attaches to the back of a user’s neck to create heat. Both thermal and wind effects are controlled via a microcontroller that receives commands from the headset via Bluetooth.

Despite the two components only targeting specific body parts, the idea is that by utilizing thermal and wind cleverly in combination it’s possible to simulate complex environments, like walking through a desert, in a way that feels like it’s affecting the wearer’s entire body.

“Traditionally, VR systems simulate physical presence in an environment through visual and auditory stimuli. By utilizing only two of the human senses, this approach to VR limits the number of modalities that are engaged, in turn having a negative effect on the user’s sense of immersion during the VR experience,” the Ambiotherm project description reads. “By providing the user with a combination of visual, auditory, thermal and wind sensations, Ambiotherm is able to increase users’ sense of presence in VR experiences by simulating real-world environmental factors such as ambient temperatures and wind patterns.”

The system is due to be presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Colorado this May.

Will it catch on in the long run? Almost certainly not in its present form factor. However, like the clever “brain hacks” that make you feel as though you’re walking forever in the virtual world, or the oddball haptic accessories that make it feel like you’re grasping things in VR, we suspect that all of these will one day find a place in fully-realized immersive virtual reality.

In other words, as weird as this concept is, we’re a fan. Pun intended.

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