Samsung headphones could help you feel VR, not just see it

A prototype from Samsung's Creative Lab tries to make virtual reality a more full-body experience by sending an electrical signal to your inner ear.

Samsung's prototype headphones trick your brain into thinking you're moving.

Virtual reality can make you think you're racing down a speedway in a zooming car. But if you can see the scene all around you, why can't you feel it as well, taking in the motion as you hug the turns?

That's what Entrim 4D headphones, unveiled this week at the South by Southwest tech, film and music festival in Austin, Texas, try to deliver. The prototype device is from Samsung's Creative Lab, a startup "incubator" that lets employees take time out from their full-time jobs to develop product ideas.

Unlike with most headphones, the main purpose of the Entrim 4D is not to pump out sound, though it does that, too. Instead, the marquee feature is that it sends an electrical signal to the nerve of your ear, which regulates balance and motion. That tricks your brain into thinking you're moving.

"Most VR demos, you're in a chair," Steve Jung, the 32-year-old head of the project, said in an interview Tuesday. His point is that motion usually isn't part of the VR experience.

If he can make it work, that could add a crucial element to virtual reality, bringing a fuller sensory experience to an already immersive environment. In fact, Entrim is a shortening of "enter the immersive world," said Jung. Anything that can add to the experience is key, given Silicon Valley's obsession with the medium. Google, HTC and Facebook -- with which Samsung partnered for its Gear VR headset through Oculus, the social network's virtual reality company -- all have their own efforts in the works.

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The headphones send an electrical signal to the part of the ear that regulates your balance and motion.

I tried the Entrim 4D with a race car demo. It really does feel like you're moving, though the feeling I got was a little more like seasickness. The movement does match up with the video. When I moved my head to the left with a turn, I feel a swaying motion. But it feels more like you're rocking back and forth on a boat, instead of looping through a racetrack.

When Jung asked me how it felt, I told him I feel a little dizzy.

Yoon Chiyuh, the project's hardware engineer, said the sensation is realistic. "When you're in a car, you feel dizzy," he said. "It's the same."

Jung said he got the idea from a friend, an emergency medical technician, who told him about vestibular signals to the ear. Samsung says it's safe. Jung explains the same methods are used to train pilots and help restore balance to stroke patients.

The team tested the product on 1,500 people to hone the experience, and it developed 30 different movement patterns. You can, thankfully, adjust the level of the motion to make the feeling less intense.

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