Hackers Use Ultrasonic Waves To Disrupt VR Headsets

Sonic guns set to headset frequency can send you into a spin and cause sickness.

Are you one of the many people who loves virtual reality, but wish there was a way to make it even more vomit-inducing? Well boy are you in for a treat!

According to Forbes, researchers at China’s Alibaba have created a sonic gun that when fired at a VR headset can drastically distort the experience to sometimes nausea-inducing levels. Ultrasonic waves registered to match the same frequency as VR systems’ MEMS-based sensors alter the device’s accelerometer and gyroscopes by vibrating the sensors until the result is a chaotic digital mess.The sudden, unbalanced visuals could send even the most experienced VR user running for a barf bag. However the scariest part of this whole project is just how effective it remains despite its simplicity and low cost.

Forbes claims that the researchers, originating from both Alibaba and Tsinghua University, were able to ‘complicate’ experiences on a variety of VR platforms such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s HoloLens, the HTC Vive and Facebook 360 videos on the iPhone 7.

All this considerable interruption for just $100 after some smart eBay shopping. “It’s really simple,” said Wang Kang, from the Mobile Security Team at Alibaba in a statement made to Forbes. “We only use signal generator and an ultrasound emitter.”

Even more terrifying, the Chinese team has managed to penetrate and distort the motions of everyone’s favorite illegal set of wheels: hoverboards. They also plan on further demonstrating their new method of attack on a wider spectrum of devices at this year’s Black Hat Conference in July, such as sonic strikes on DJI drones. With drones becoming immensely popular over the last couple years and only more traction being gained everyday, it’ll be interesting to see if this sonic assault will play a factor in future quadcopter regulation.

While the ultrasonic gun used by this team is still very much a prototype with several limitations such as limited range, Forbes states the researchers are confident that a more expensive model could without doubt increase effectiveness and range. So this brings up the inevitable predicament of what companies and customers can do to combat this potential threat to everyone’s good virtual time. According to the Alibaba members, real-time detection monitors as well as metal shielding are just some of the tools that could be utilized to resist sonic distortion.

Successful test causes signal loss on HoloLens.

“Make something vibrate enough and it can cause damage,” said Alan Woodward, professor at the Department of Computing at the U.K.’s University of Surrey when speaking with Forbes. “We forget just how much sensitive equipment we have in the systems we all take for granted. It’s not difficult to see how sonic disruption could become a realistic attack.”

So while the potential problem is clear, we’ll just have to wait and see if these ultrasonic weapons will pose any real threat to our future VR enjoyment. Still, it is fascinating to see our society gravitate towards weapons and tools targeted at our digital experiences rather than inflict physical damage. As we continue to head down this uncharted path we’ll need to remain vigilant towards the safety of our digital selves.

Kyle Melnick: Kyle is a writer for VRScout also working in new media production. He's also a part-time bounty hunter.