Why SleepNumber had the most thought-provoking VR demo at CES

January 16, 2016

Sandra Bergmeir

CES is THE event of the year for techies, it’s pretty much Coachella for us nerds.

The conference is huge, covering 2.4 million square feet full of the latest gadgets. This year was the biggest year for VR at CES. Oculus had about an hour wait to try The Rift, and HTC had a three hour wait to try the Vive Pre.

SleepNumber partnered with WorldViz to create a VR application that showcased the effects of sleep deprivation on the brand new Vive Pre. In the demo, you are raised 60 feet above the ground on a metal plank. Then the virtual world changes around you. Your vision becomes blurry and your peripheral vision is occluded. This is meant to show how your brain perceives the world when you are sleep deprived. Next, you are asked to walk across the plank in your sleepless state and stop about halfway across. You turn to face the pit below you, the SleepNumber host says “When you’re sleep deprived, you tend to make bad decisions. We’re going to ask you to make a bad decision, step off the plank into the pit.”

Of the 500+ demos we gave at CES, about 10% of people refused to step off the plank and fall 60 feet into the pit. It didn’t matter how many times we reminded them, “You’re on carpet! You’re at CES” -. They wouldn’t budge an inch forward. A few people even said out loud “It’s not real, it’s not real but I just can’t take a step forward”.

Why do people refuse to step off the plank? The visual stimulus of the pit 60 feet below prompts the amygdala to trigger a fear response. In other words, the human survival instinct kicks in. For some people, this response is so strong that they can’t consciously override it.  Your brain is forced to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time, known as cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, you know you are perfectly safe, on carpet, at CES. On the other hand, your survival instinct is telling you “if you step forward, you’ll die”. This fully immersive VR experience is called “presence”.

Of all the VR demos I saw at CES, none forced the user to confront the nature of virtual reality like the SleepNumber demo. True presence is difficult to achieve but WorldViz’s background in academic psychology research gave us the insight and experience to create this simple, yet powerful demo.

Check out this short video to see the demo in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myjUM7CMKLQ