How Virtual Reality Creators Are Preventing Motion Sickness

It's still a work in progress, but a handful of creative solutions aim to calm VR-induced queasiness

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Jun 18, 2016 at 11:31 AM ET

Virtual reality headsets aim to immerse users in an experience so real and so tangible they forget about the real world. But for those who experience VR motion sickness, nothing reminds them of reality more. Now, VR companies and game designers are working on a number of fresh approaches to settle stomachs, using technology and visual tricks to override the human perceptual system.

It’s unclear how many people experience motion sickness from VR headsets—anecdotally, developers say it’s not a large percentage of users—but it affects enough people that it can’t be brushed off as an anomaly. Evan Suma, a professor who studies the phenomenon at the University of Southern California, said in a recent talk that the challenge for game developers is that “people’s sensitivity to motion and simulator sickness varies wildly.” In spite of improvements to game technology in recent years, developers like the Facebook-owned Oculus, Sony, and HTC are focusing heavily these days on making sure users feel correctly oriented.

Simulator sickness is not that different than seasickness, in that it involves discrepancies in the vestibular system of fluid-filled canals inside the inner ear, compared with what your brain can see. In other words, eyes see one thing, but your ears know better. At Live Science, they explain that the system normally works by “integrating sight and sensations from the muscles and joints to tell the brain where the body is in space.” But in a simulator situation, particularly one where the technology creates lags between the physical experience and the visuals, it can really mess you up: “A virtual-reality environment hammers a wedge between these systems,” they write.

Oculus, creator of the pioneering Rift headset, is working to address the issue by minimizing the lag that occurs when a game processes a player’s head movement. Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey said in a talk at the Game Developers Conference that limiting movement helps because “you have something for your brain to fixate on.”  The company also switched out LCD screens in Rift to OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens, because the latter is less sluggish.

While Samsung and HTC are also at work on boosting the frame rate to clear up that nausea-inducing mismatch, game developers are coming up with a variety of solutions to solve the problem, or at least minimize it. CCP Games, who are developing the space combat game “EVE: Valkyrie,” told that it created a virtual cockpit for the game to make the players feel more grounded as they move through space.

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Researchers at Purdue found a novel approach to lowering the nausea rate by adding a nose to the lower center of the screen for the VR user’s avatar. The virtual schnoz reduced simulator sickness by 13.5 percent.

But a new Mayo Clinic development may solve the problem by tricking the system into uniformity. In March, the clinic announced that it had licensed a patented technology called GVS—galvanic vestibular stimulation—to a Los Angeles entertainment company called vMocion for use in the game and entertainment industry. Developed over 10 years by the Mayo Clinic and the Department of Defense for flight simulators, the software, in concert with sensors that touch users behind the ear, the nape of the neck, and the forehead, synchronizes the vestibular system with the visual system within one-tenth of a second, “so you can actually feel the motion you are viewing, in real time.” It claims to eliminate virtual reality sickness in the majority of the population.

According to Business Insider, the virtual reality market is expected to gain significant traction in 2016 and take in up to $895 million in revenue. However, the Wall Street Journal reporters that fewer than one percent of PC users have the capacity to run the technology. On top of the cost of VR headsets—the Oculus Rift headset costs $600, while HTC’s is $800—the cost of a PC that can power them is around $1,000. Therefore, it seems logical that the relatively small number of current VR users makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of virtual motion sickness.

In the meantime, users have tried various other methods to mitigate the queasiness associated with VR—suggestions include drinking alcohol before using a headset, limiting game play, and taking breaks to help alleviate or prevent the nausea. But as the technology becomes more accessible, people are bound to get more creative until a definitive fix arrives.