How to FEEL TOUCH in VR (no haptics)

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How to FEEL TOUCH in VR (no haptics)
TVRS Episode 15's thumbnail
Date July 6, 2020
Duration 26:34
Previous episode How to be a Virtual Youtuber! Complete 2020 Guide
Next episode OCULUS RIFT S vs VALVE INDEX : Is it Worth the Upgrade?
Link YouTube

How to FEEL TOUCH in VR (no haptics) is the fifteenth episode of The Virtual Reality Show. It covers the topic of phantom touch.


Video Description

Episode 15 of TVRS is here, and it’s all about the crazy phenomena[sic] of “phantom touch”- an experience where your brain tricks you into feeling touch when there is no physical stimulus for it. Watch my journey as I interview people with it, share my research survey, and experience a phantom touch hypnotism as I try to develop it for myself.


PHIA: Hey guys, and welcome back to The Virtual Reality Show! Where we talk about any and all things related to virtual reality, inside...virtual reality! Haha. I’m your host, PHIA.

Phantom touch - you’ve probably heard of people who can experience physical sensations of being touched while inside virtual reality without the need of a haptic suit. It’s scary, exciting, and just plain weird that our bodies can produce a physical response to something simulated. So what’s going on? What does it feel like, and what is happening inside the brains of people who do experience this phenomena[sic]? I decided to put together my own research in search of answers.

Firstly, I knew I needed to talk to people who do experience phantom touch to understand what it is. I put together a survey to collect my own data answering the questions that I had about it. But while I waited for the data to roll in, I went ahead and grabbed some friends and pulled them into VRChat to have them explain to me how they experience phantom touch.

<interview text forthcoming>

PHIA: My survey I mentioned before was up for a couple weeks, and I got 128 unique sets of data from those people who can “feel” inside virtual reality. I’m now gonna walk through the results step by step so we can understand phantom touch better and see if there are any trends that we should take from it.

The first question I asked was how often do people with PT experience it. The results were fairly evenly distributed, with the largest majority weighing in at some or most of the time while in VR.

Next, I asked about what kind of sensations people would have. A whopping 70% of people said they experienced tingling, making it the most common feeling people had in my sample group. Over half had the fuzziness my friends explained to me, and about a quarter said they had a numb feeling.

What was particularly surprising to me was the pleasure section. If you remember back to my ERP video, I explained how some people are able to feel pleasure using phantom touch. A whopping 25% of my respondents admitted to having experienced sexual pleasure while over half said they felt just pleasure in general. About a tenth of respondents even said they had experienced pain. Feeling temperature was also common - heat being the more prominent versus the cold. Other respondents put in feeling things like heart beats, squeezing, weight, pulsing, scratching, and throbbing. There was a wide variety of different sensations that people seem to get, and these sensations greatly varied from one person to another.

The most common stimulus for phantom touch is player-to-player interaction coming in at 86%. Half of respondents said they could feel projectiles, such as gunshots coming at them.

Now, the most interesting piece of data I found was this: Has your phantom touch sensitivity increased over time? I figured that over time, people would get immune to these sensations. I thought maybe your body would wear out or your brain would become more aware of the illusion, but the results showed me just the opposite. While a large portion was unsure if their sensitivity had changed, 42% of respondents said their sensitivity had increased over time while only 7% said it had gotten worse - quite opposite to my initial guess.

It was a pretty even split on whether or not people actively search out triggers, and a similar split on whether or not they choose to share this information with others. And of course, here’s the most juicy results. I’m not gonna linger too much on this one, but here is the graph so feel free to pause the video and scope this one out for yourself.

What all this led me to was trying to find out what was happening inside the brains of people who experience this phenomena[sic]. It reminded me a lot of a previous discussion I’ve had on TVRS with Joakim from AltVR about identity and inhabiting a virtual body, where he talked to me about the rubber hand experiment.

Our brains are capable of simulating sensations that we see, even if we do not actually feel them. Our brains identify with our virtual avatars and those perceptions can be taken to that physical level.

This is closely related to something called mirror-touch synesthesia, a type of synesthesia that occurs when someone feels a physical sensation while watching someone else being touched. For example, if you tap your cheek, someone with mirror-touch synesthesia would also feel a similar sensation on their own cheek just from watching you.

Erin: Well, I think it's really similar to, like, phantom touch, except it's more like a visual stimulus when it comes to, like, seeing somebody else receive that sort of physical input, like, even if like through a TV or like a picture or like, whatever, like...I mentioned in your Google Doc like if I watched somebody, like, getting a shot at the doctor, you know, I often feel a little pinch on my arm. It's weird but yeah.

PHIA: How often would you say that you do that? 'Cause I feel like it would be very hard to live, like day to day if every time you saw someone being touched, you felt that. So it's gotta be like, um, like I'm sure you don't feel it every single time, right?

Erin: Um, I mean it's usually if like, I'm really like honed in on that thing, and I think it's more of an anxious response. Like, you know when you're like watching a movie, and like they're underwater? You feel like it's kinda harder to breathe because you put yourself in their shoes? So it's kind of like a form of empathy, if you will.

PHIA: Scientific American describes synesthesia as an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Commonly, this produces effects like, seeing colors when listening to music or associating certain personality traits with numbers. But synesthesia includes the blending of any senses, which in this case, would be sight and touch. I believe that phantom touchers see stimulus and their brain associates that with physical sensations in a type of touch-synesthesia.

There’s even smaller examples of these quote misperceptions like phantom phone vibrations, which brings me to think that maybe the way we determine reality is not as clear cut as we once thought. The truth about what we see and feel can be simulated through virtual stimuli and suddenly, it is our perceptions that become real.

After all this talk with those who have phantom touch, I started getting jealous. I wish my brain would do this kind of immersion. It’s exciting and fun, and something I want to experience first hand, and for a lot of you watching, I’m sure you feel the same way.

Luckily, during my research, I stumbled upon a surprising YouTube channel - Amanugai: a virtual hypnotist. Now, the video I found was of Amanugai hypnotizing a group a VRchat users into feeling phantom touch, and I immediately knew that I had to try this out for myself. The fact that I could have a shot at experiencing this was too good of an opportunity to miss out on, so I reached out and he agreed to filming a demo with me so that not only could I learn about being hypnotized into phantom touch, but that you guys could be introduced into it as well.

<Amanugai clip demo>

PHIA: So after getting sucked into making this episode for a few weeks, loads of research, jealousy, filming, data collection and hypnotism, I finally got my Valve Index in the mail. I loaded up VRchat with my new headset and full body trackers, and all of a sudden VR felt more alive and vivid than ever before. I went into one of my favorite worlds and picked up this little rose and brushed it freely with my finger and I froze. What was that?

As my finger brushed over the petals, I felt them. Soft, damp, layered. I wasn’t thinking about it or trying to get a phantom touch from it. I was just: immersed. And now...everything’s different. This virtual world is my home. It’s personal, because I feel it.

Well guys that’s it for this episode. Making this video led me down a really crazy journey and was a few weeks worth of work, but it turned out to be well worth it. If you enjoyed this video, then please give it a like and subscribe to The Virtual Reality Show channel. And if you want to talk more about virtual reality related topics, then make sure to join my Discord, link in the description.

Anyways, I’ve been your host, PHIA, and I’ll see you next week's episode. Byeee!

Special thanks to my Patreon members and my Virtual VIP: TopWaffle.

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