What is “Phantom Sense” in VR, and do you have it?

Woman wearing VR headset and making a surprised expression while reaching out with her index finger.
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You find yourself in a VR world, surrounded by virtual grass. The wind picks up and blows across the field, and looking at the tall grass blowing in the wind, you can feel it shakes your body; How is it possible?

Episode 1: The Phantom Meaning

When you’re in virtual reality and can “feel” a sensation that isn’t actually produced by the hardware, it’s called “phantom sense”, which can be like the “phantom pain” that amputees feel that you have probably heard of it before. Still, it’s quite different once you consider how phantom sense is likely to work.

Ghosting in virtual reality is not a new discovery, but now that virtual reality headsets are becoming more widespread, members of the public are discovering this phenomenon for themselves. If you search for the term “ghost sense” on forums such as Reddit, you will see many virtual reality user accounts claiming to experience it.

For many VR users, this kind of “bonus” immersion is desirable, so many of those aforementioned forum posts are actually about how to induce ghost-sense, with different VR fans offering a variety of tips on how to achieve this. Whether any of these methods work is debatable, but can something like “ghost sense” really happen, and how does it even work?

Perception is “top-down” and “bottom-up”

Illustration of a man's silhouette with his brain highlighted and a painting coming out of his eyes.
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Humans and other living beings “perceive” the world around us with sensory organs. In school, you are taught that there are five senses, but the truth is that you have many different senses that give your brain information about the outside world and the state of your body.

Perception is a complex process that is both “top-down” and “bottom-up” in nature. The bottom-up part of perception is the raw information that goes from your eyes, ears, and other sensory organs to your brain. In your brain, this information is transformed into something that makes sense to your conscious mind. So what you perceive is not actually reality, but a transformed version that makes sense from a human point of view.

The top-down aspects of perception are things like your past experience and what you have learned about the world. Your expectations and prior knowledge allow your brain to automatically fill in the blanks or predict what it thinks you should see. Magic tricks and optical illusions often take advantage of your expectations and how they influence what we see and hear. It is most likely between these two types of perceptual processing that phantom sense occurs.

Ghost sense in the lab

The phantom sense that people report feeling in VR is most likely a form of “body transfer”. Body transference occurs when someone appropriates something as part of their own body when it is not. The classic experiment involves a rubber arm attached to the subject so that it is in the position you expect your real arm to be.

Stroking the arm has been shown to induce this sensation in the subject. Likewise, sticking a needle into the rubber arm can cause pain. Psychologists believe that this illusion occurs when bottom-up processes replace top-down processes. In other words, even though you know it’s not your real body part, your brain is basically tricked into accepting it and your conscious mind is in on it whether it likes it or not.

In addition to this, virtual reality was deliberately used to induce body transference. The researchers determined that a person’s VR body induces the same threat response as in real life. In other words, under the right conditions, the brain accepts ownership of the virtual body, and the radical illusion of bodily transference occurs. This could explain why some VR users experience phantom senses.

What does this mean for virtual reality?

Much of our media depends on the ability of our perception systems to fill in the gaps. That’s why you perceive movement instead of scrolling through still images in a movie theater or only need the simplified suggestion of something in a painting to perceive the whole image.

If VR developers could disentangle the factors that reliably induce ghosting sense (much like they did for “presence” in VR), this could become another tool that VR authors could use when creating of experiences.

Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to the phantom sense since negative perceptions are possible alongside positive perceptions. The idea that virtual reality could be used for questionable interrogation practices has been something that has been plaguing ethicists for some time now, and phantom sense could be a sad part of that formula if anyone finds out how the deliberately use.

Again, much like lucid dreaming, if you can learn or practice experiencing phantom sense in VR, it has the potential to elevate your VR experience beyond just hardware. Or you can think of it as using the “wetware” in your brain to make virtual reality more immersive than ever.

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