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VR motion sickness: What is true and what is false?

VR motion sickness

VR motion sickness is a real issue in the industry. While advancements in virtual reality mean it is less powerful, many first-time users experience cybersickness and become nauseous. Nothing stops an experience sooner than getting headaches and illnesses. Some stop using VR altogether. 

This topic is vital to address. Many people cite motion sickness as a barrier for VR adoption. Once resolved, more and more people would feel comfortable adopting the technology in 2019 and beyond.

This article will be a comprehensive guide on what VR motion sickness is, how it is caused, and what the best ways are to circumvent the sickness. It will also explore long-term solutions to the issue.

What is VR motion sickness?

VR motion sickness is when someone using a VR headset experiences symptoms similar to general motion sickness. This can include headaches, nausea, fatigue, or disorientation. For some individuals, the symptoms are minor. For others, it may include vomiting or great discomfort.

How do you get sick?

Think of it as the brain, eyes, ears, and body having a conversation, but not quite understanding each other.

Take shooting zombies in VR as an example. The eyes sees zombies running towards the victim in a desert, while the victim runs away. Yet the body is sat down on a sofa, comfortable and warm in a home. Then the zombie claws at the person and drags them down – again, while the body is sat comfortably.

Likewise, the inner ears hold a sense of balance. If the brain and ears detect two different situations, then the body is unsure what to feel or how to orientate itself. The dissonance between them all these factors causes motion sickness.

VR motion sickness applies the same principles, only with a headset strapped to the head.

How long does VR motion sickness last?

It depends on the person, experience, and length of time. If the experience was only five minutes long, then the sickness should pass after a short while. Someone may be particularly harmed by the experience, they would take the headset off sooner for the cold air.

Yet if the experience was half an hour, and the user was negatively impacted, recovery might take longer. It may be worth drinking some cold water, pacing around a room, and taking deep breaths.

If the person still feels ill long after the experience, a solution is calling a doctor or popping some motion sickness spills.

PlayStation VR vs Oculus Rift motion sickness: Is there a difference?

Many people feel motion sick when using either the PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift. While both platforms have a capacity for causing VR motion sickness, it is disengenuous to say one is worse over the other.

Ultimately, it depends on the titles. Tetris Effect on the PlayStation VR is done while seated, watching a screen. Nothing special, nothing sickening. Meanwhile, Lone Echo had reports of motion sickness on the Oculus Rift, though it is unfair to say that impacts the entire system. Individual exclusives do not define a platform. Likewise, the HTC VIVE is no different.

Each game should be taken as an example, compared to the tolerance level of the player. Hardware can cause issues, and researchers are searching for resolutions. Yet for now, the most important factor is software.

VR motion sickness
Both hardware and software can cause VR motion sickness. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

How to stop VR motion sickness

There are seven (plus one) main ways to stop VR motion sickness:

  • Ease yourself into the experience
  • Take a break
  • Change the game’s FOV
  • Take medication
  • Change the PC settings
  • Check the game’s reviews
  • Fan yourself

All of these are explored in-depth below:

Slowly ease yourself into using virtual reality

Most people’s first time using VR is exciting and new. Whether it is playing SUPERHOT, Beat Saber, or ASTRO BOT, the inherent nature of VR can be overwhelming for someone who is unsure what to do.

As such, some users may feel that they are losing touch with the world and, over time, feel motion sickness. This is expected, as it would be their first time playing in VR. With standalone headsets set to make a hit this year, this problem may become more prominent.

Like with all experiences, it takes time to get used to something new. Because of this, it is recommended to play a game for a few minutes, or until feeling uncomfortable and ease off the controls. Given time, their tolerance can increase. Like a hot bath, users should ease themselves in to get used to gameplay.

Take regular breaks

Linked to the above, it is important to take regular breaks while adapting to virtual reality.

Take revising. Students can revise for a long time, yet need a break once they feel burned out or the mind is overworked. This lets the brain rest, take stock of what it has learned, and file the information accordingly. All skills require a small break to let the brain process new skills.

Similarly, it does no good to play VR for an hour thinking that it will help improve the resilience against motion sickness. Take a step back, process, and dive in again.

Shift the FOV down

Lower field of view can help improve the experience by narrowing the focus. While this can hamper the experience, it helps the body process VR better.

Motion sickness pills

A more radical approach, motion sickness pills can help alleviate the pain. Apart from pills, patches and tablets can also help alleviate the pain. In the UK, these pharma products would be labelled under travel sickness.

While these tablets work, continued use for the sake of VR would be unhealthy. If people are popping pills to enjoy a video game, to alleviate pain, then it is a strange form of torture. Much better would be to build tolerance rather than build a reliance on pharmaceutical products.

Edit the settings of your PC

Want to go hardcore? Editing the settings of your PC can help with the experience. Both AMD and NVIDIA come with software which can help optimise games for playing on your PC. By optimising the games appropriately, based on the individual specs of the PC, games can run smootly and cause less stuttering.

If the game still has issues, and makes the person ill, then it may be time to upgrade the PC with more RAM or a better GPU. Ensure the PC is good quality, then revisit it with your wallet.

Note that this is not an issue for the PSVR, Oculus Go, or other standalone systems.

Before buying an experience, check how intense it is

Oculus has a way to show the intensity level of a game before purchase, which is great before buying a game. No-one wants buyers remorse, especially with a faulty roller coaster.

Steam does not have the same settings. However, commenters and reviewers can be particularly vocal if they do not like a game for any reason. Use their vocal words wisely, and see if they mention any issues with VR motion sickness.

Otherwise, search online and see what other people think of a game. Do your research, and you will rarely be disappointed or ill.

Using a… fan? Really?

Some publications recommend using a fan. If a person is sitting still, yet the virtual character is skydiving. This causes a dissonance between the person and the character, making the mind grow ill. In theory, having a fan changes this.

This seems superfluous and a strange way to resolve the situation. The previous steps should suffice.

VR motion sickness
There are a variety of ways to fight against sickness. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

How can virtual reality sickness be solved?

So far we have seen how VR motion sickness can be solved. But is there a long-term solution to the issue? Is there a way to permanently solve the issue? The topic has been explored since 1992, and has gained pace since.

There are two ways to solve the nausea that plagues players. One is based on hardware, the other software.

Hardware solution to motion sickness

As hinted above, some technology companies are researching to improve headsets. There are two ways to do this – latency and stability. Hillcrest Labs has analysed the technology and gives their thoughts on the issue:

“Simulator sickness arises when users experience feelings that are not in sync with how they expect to feel – based on how they are moving and what they are seeing on their VR headset.

“If the latency of the system is too high when a user is playing a navigation game on a VR headset, and the user moves but the image they see on the screen does not move instantly, they will experience simulator sickness. The end-to-end target latency of the system from the user’s motion to when the user sees the corresponding action on the screen is typically around 20 msec.

“The visual output of a VR headset must also be incredibly stable. Once a user has stopped moving, the image on the screen must also instantaneously stop moving, without delay or lag. In addition, the image cannot jitter or wobble during motion because this can disorient the user. Any of these issues risk causing the user to experience simulator sickness.”

Software solution via game design

Otherwise, game developers design their game to minimize sickness as much as possible.

One game which will be impossible to translate into VR would be Sonic the Hedgehog. Imagine being sat in a sedentary position, controller in hand. Then, Sonic moves fast. Sonic rushes past enemies, spins, does loops and twists and jumps. After a few minutes, the viewer might need to throw up.

A less extreme example is Mirror’s Edge. On a console, it is fun to run along walls and across rooftops. In VR, when the person bobs up and down and rolls, it can be a sickening experience. An omnidirectional treadmill may help, but not when running along walls.

Developers must be careful when crafting their games, and pick their fights accordingly.

Conclusion: Getting VR legs

Whatever the situation, VR needs to take some steps before solving VR motion sickness. Whether it is on hardware, software, or general coping mechanisms, VR is here for the future.

Innovation takes time, yet when it does, it is likely that cases of motion sickness may decrease with time. If it were permanent, it would be another story entirely.