Have you ever felt dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous during a virtual reality experience? It’s virtual reality sickness, and it’s a form of motion sickness. It’s not a completely solved problem, and it affects people differently, but it all comes from the same root cause, and there are better and worse ways to deal with it.
If you have experienced a sudden onset of virtual reality sickness, it was likely triggered by flying, sliding, or some other type of movement in virtual reality that caused a sudden strong feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness. Or maybe it wasn’t sudden, and more like a vague malaise that crept in, leaving you feeling nauseous and sick.
Just like motion sickness or seasickness, people are sensitive to each other differently. But why this happens is no mystery; it all comes down to how the human body interprets and responds to a particular type of sensory mismatch.
Why does this happen?
The vestibular system of the human body is responsible for our sense of balance. He, in turn, is responsible for many boring, but important tasks, such as not falling. To fulfill this responsibility, the brain interprets a mixture of sensory information and uses it to form an idea of the body, its movements and how it fits into the world around it.
These sensory inputs come from the inner ear, body, and eyes. Usually these inputs agree, or they disagree so politely that the brain can confidently make a decision and proceed without disturbing anyone. But what if there is a non-trivial conflict between these inputs and the brain cannot figure out whether it is moving or not? For example, what if the eyes say the body is moving, but the joints, muscles and inner ear are not? The result of this kind of conflict is to feel sick.
Common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, sweating, headache, and vomiting. These messy symptoms are intentional, because the human body’s response to this particular type of sensory mismatch is to assume it’s ingested something toxic and go into a “throw up, go to bed” failure mode. . This is what happens – to a greater or lesser degree – in those who suffer from virtual reality sickness.
How can it be treated?
For those unlucky enough to be sentient, there are three ways to deal with the evil of virtual reality: avoidance, moderation, and adaptation. Luckily, unlike being stuck at sea during seasickness, one is usually in complete control of one’s engagement in a virtual reality experience. Not all experiences will be a problem and people are differently sensitive. We can tolerate some things, but others not at all.
Most VR experiences include some sort of comfort rating and offer different locomotion and interface options. Seated experiences tend to be more comfortable. Teleport-type movements and quick turns also tend to be more comfortable for users. Smooth locomotion and smooth turns are more challenging. These options make it possible to avoid certain elements, and to moderate others.
It is also possible to adapt, and here a little education will facilitate the process of obtaining its “VR legs”.
Adaptation is possible
Sailors eventually have “sea legs” and adapt to an environment in which the movements perceived by their body do not correspond to what their eyes see. Astronauts residing on the ISS (International Space Station) have a similar experience: in microgravity, the inner ear does not provide useful information. As a result, astronaut brains eventually learn to rely primarily on visuals. (It turns out that after a long period in microgravity, astronauts suffer from a severe sensory mismatch when they return to Earth. As Chris Hadfield described it in a lecture I attended, “You smile for the camera but you feel terrible. »
I have a better understanding of the adaptation process thanks to a long experience with a disease that affects my vestibular system. In physiotherapy, I learned that the brain is very plastic and in most cases it is able to relearn necessary lessons. But it is better to know a little about how exactly this process works.
Although the brain is able to relearn how to deal with confusing sensory inputs from the vestibular system, this learning occurs with a high degree of specificity. This means that if one practices a certain thing, such as looking left when going forward, the brain only relearn how to deal with that specific thing. One cannot practice a narrow activity and expect it to “extend” in a general sense. We will only get better at the things we practice.
My advice to those trying to gain their VR legs is to expose yourself to a mix of different activities in VR that challenge your sense of balance, and do it. gently and in moderation, for short periods at a time. There is no point in forcing things and pushing too hard. When you hit your limits, immediately stop and refocus, then try again. Then, after a short time, rest.
Vestibular physiotherapy and rehabilitation exercises are designed with this in mind and the same principles apply.
Will virtual reality develop after this?
In a way, the modern development of VR has already done a lot to drive many common triggers of VR sickness down to a low level. High frame rates and highly accurate motion tracking don’t just serve to deliver good visuals and satisfying feedback. Display lag and subtly delayed visuals can cause feelings of sickness, and these have been impressively addressed in the development of modern headsets. Smaller and lighter helmets also allow for a safer and more stable fit to users’ heads; loose and wobbly helmets also being a pathway to visual mismatch.
The experiences coming from the VR apps themselves, however, are another story. Some software titles are concerned with comfort levels when it comes to designing their interfaces and experiences, while others seem to ignore comfort altogether in favor of exploring new gameplay. One thing is clear, it is still early in this space.
In the meantime, if you suffer from virtual reality sickness, the best thing to do is to avoid apps and experiences that make you sick. Use others sparingly, and if you’re determined to adapt, follow the guidelines I laid out earlier. Your stomach will thank you for it.
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