Computer scientist working on enhancing safety in virtual reality

VR headsets come with their own set of risks, as users might encounter walls, furniture, or other individuals. Niall Williams, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park, is addressing this issue.

Williams specializes in redirected walking, a technique that guides users along a physical path by adjusting their virtual display subtly. Through VR programs, developers can manipulate how distances are perceived, enabling users to explore vast digital spaces by taking just a few steps.

However, sudden or significant changes can disorient users and make them feel seasick. Redirected walking is most effective in spacious environments with minimal obstructions. To enhance safety, Williams developed a program that charts a secure path for users, steering them away from physical and virtual obstacles. “We employ tactics to ensure users navigate VR spaces safely,” Williams explains.

Compared to other redirected walking programs, Williams’ algorithms have proven to prevent more collisions. By implementing gradual adjustments, they also reduce the risk of motion sickness. Williams is currently exploring additional methods to facilitate natural walking in virtual settings, as he shares in an interview with Science News Explores.

What motivated you to pursue your career?

Originally interested in biology but deterred by chemistry, I gravitated towards programming due to prior experience in high school. Subsequently, I opted for a computer science degree, which ultimately led me to discover computer graphics—a blend of my varied interests in video games, animations, and art.

Delving into this research is enjoyable, as it allows me to delve into the intricacies of the human visual system and understand why certain images evoke specific reactions. Despite cartoons looking unrealistic, they still convey human characteristics, showcasing the power of visual perception.

What inspired your current position?

Engaging with numerous Ph.D. students in my lab who focused on distinct topics, I observed a correlation between robotic navigation and VR locomotion. I identified similarities, with robot navigation aimed at traversing environments unobstructed akin to VR locomotion.

One key challenge in VR locomotion is the disconnect between the virtual and physical spaces. Often, the path to a destination in the virtual realm is impeded by physical objects, leading me to blend techniques from robot navigation to address this VR challenge.

What constitutes your most significant achievement?

My breakthrough accomplishment was my first published paper, stemming from my doctoral research. Conceptualizing the application of motion-planning principles from robot navigation to VR navigation was daunting yet rewarding.

Despite initial setbacks, I devised algorithms that enhanced performance in specific scenarios, leading to a published paper that garnered positive reception within the scientific community.

Niall Williams tested his algorithm in different physical and virtual scenarios. In one test, the virtual environment was larger than the physical space available. The program guided the user along a curved route in the physical world to compensate (left). In another test, the program had to navigate a straight virtual path while avoiding real-life objects placed in front of the user (right). N. Williams

What was one of your toughest challenges and how did you overcome it?

During my internship at Meta, focusing on human perception in VR, I tackled a domain unfamiliar to me. Navigating this shift towards collaborating with psychologists and delving into human perception presented a considerable learning curve.

How do you generate your most innovative ideas?

I draw inspiration from engaging with diverse individuals and delving into research from varied scientific fields. The interdisciplinary nature of extended reality presents numerous opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

By bridging disparate scientific disciplines and viewing problems from alternative perspectives, I unearth novel insights. Challenging myself to explore new horizons often yields creative breakthroughs.

What advice do you wish you had received earlier in your career?

In hindsight, I wish I had known earlier that pursuing a Ph.D. could be an enjoyable pursuit. The process of becoming a scientist, while demanding, offers the unique opportunity to delve deeply into topics of personal interest, contributing valuable new knowledge.

Recognizing that scientists are not merely fictional characters but real individuals engaged in meaningful research endeavors is a vital realization that I wish I had embraced sooner.

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