Virtual reality has the potential to make unique and entertaining experiences accessible to the average person. We don't live in an ideal world, and instead we have researchers using virtual reality hardware to recreate the horrifying experience of suffocating in a fire.

Researchers have explored ways to upgrade virtual reality hardware before. One application of the research featured an off-the-shelf virtual reality headset that could recreate the sensation of touch in and around the wearer's mouth. We signed up for a different future.

A team of researchers from the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria seem to have good intentions, but may have missed the mark, as detailed in a paper published for the recent CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. They created a device called the AirRes Mask that is designed to be worn alongside a consumer-friendly virtual reality headset like the Meta Quest 2 and serve as an additional way to interact with a virtual experience through the user's breathing.

The AirRes mask can be used in two ways. One approach uses the mask as a way to monitor breathing and the other is less likely to traumatize users. Simple everyday acts like blowing out a virtual candle, inflating a balloon, or even playing an instrument using their own breath are some of the applications. The mask can be used to adjust the experience based on the user's respiration rate. It is easier to hit the target when the user holds their breath and steadies themselves.

The mask's ability to add resistance to the wearer's ability to breath is what the other approach uses. Suffocation doesn't seem like a particularly fun way to escape one's own reality, but the researchers believe the AirRes mask could be used as a more realistic training tool. Firefighters could experience the lack of oxygen in a room as a raging fire consumes it, as well as the side effects of the human body not getting enough oxygen, but without the added risks of a real fire. The added g-forces of high speed maneuvers make it harder for a pilot to breathe, so the mask could make flight simulations feel more realistic.

It certainly doesn't sound like fun, but as horrifying as it seems, it does help further demonstrate the unique potential of virtual reality, and its ability to sometimes make us feel uncomfortable without actually putting.

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