Skip to content

Analysis: How the design of VR headsets causes motion sickness

How the design of VR headsets restrict enjoyment and cause motion sickness

“Are you okay?” 

Emily blinked a few times as she took off the VR headset. She rubbed her eyes, stared blankly, and slowly stood up. 

“Yeah,” she said. “It was cool! Very cool, indeed… I feel a bit… ill.” 

“Ah, yes,” I replied, crossing my arms. “A bit like seasickness, yes? Catches a few people off-guard, it’s pretty common. Do you want to try something else?” 

Emily lifted her bag. “No,” she said, shuffling away slowly. “I think I’ve seen enough.” Emily disappeared around the corner, nursing her head. 

A few immersive professionals have seen conversations like this from time to time. New people who try out new VR experiences, excited to try something fresh. After a short while, they get a bit motion sick; a deep, uncomfortable kind that makes for an uneasy experience, and they tread away, a potentially lost customer in a vibrant and creative ecosystem.

Through history, many art mediums meet boundaries because they are so fresh, and people do not yet have the experience to handle it. Silent films gave people a shock when trains came towards them. Sound heightened the horror of films like Psycho. And VR, fresh and new, is making people feel motion sick. For adoption, that is an issue. 

The article will explore whether the design of headsets hampers the enjoyment of some people, including women. During the analysis, we avoided the common but incorrect phrase ‘gendered design’; instead, we will lean towards sex-related terms. While gender is based on identity, we want to focus on how being male or female-bodied impacts viewers playing VR.

Virtual Perceptions explored the topic previously, covering areas like hardware and software. But over the years, evidence has shown other dimensions to the issue. Most contentiously is whether being female-bodied naturally hampers the enjoyment of VR. How accurate is this, if at all? And how could this be lowered on the software level? 

We’ve outreached to women around the industry to collect their thoughts, as well as major VR headset manufacturers for their discoveries and innovations. 

What we know about cyber-sickness in VR

First, let’s cover the latest studies on the matter so that everyone is on the same page. In late 2018, the University of Wisconsin released new research on VR motion sickness, which found a link to “the interpupillary distance of the device to the individual observer.” The study found that the person’s sex does not matter; the user should calibrate their device properly, and ensure the game has smooth locomotion controls. As intensity is such an issue, then power has to be dialled up over a period to increase comfort. (It is worth noting that the Google Daydream University Program partially funded the study).

The research also stated that 90% of women have pupils closer together than the default setting. While valid, it feels like a moot point, as each individual can configure their VR headsets. So even if the default setting is not right, it can be adjusted quickly. The same goes for all parameters in life, from cars to chairs; it’s not perfect for anyone, so long as it can be adjusted to fit better. That said, we will explore the limits of this later in this article. 

In 2019, the Economist covered how virtual reality makes people sick. The publication referenced the previous study, as well as two prevailing theories why sickness happens. One is the sensory conflict between the virtual and real; an issue solved via good game design. The other is the inability to hold the best posture while experiencing VR, which exacerbates motion sickness. Both are crucial to understanding the future. 

While not directly linked, others explored how sex can influence design. Also in 2019, Caroline Criado Perez released Invisible Women, a book exploring data bias in our world. The author hammers home the ingrained issues that come from not just the rare collection of data on women, but its absence as well. The concepts bleed into the design of hardware as well; Google Home is 70% more likely to recognise male speech, for example. Speech-recognition technology reads vast databases of human voices – which are mostly full of men. The book inspired our more in-depth research into the study. 

So we have two overhanging questions to answer. The first is on sex; are VR headsets designed for men first, and women second? And the second is on the software level, and how people can feel more comfortable while watching. 

When you read the history of headset design, you don’t see women’s names appear as having worked on the concept. (Of course there may have been). And it does seem to us that women were not considered to be the potential user.

– Denise Silber, founder of Doctors 2.0 & You

How comfortable are VR headsets? 

We approached men and women in the immersive community to collect evidence on headset comfort. Anecdotal evidence points towards some sex-related barriers. Christina Ingwalson, VP Marketing at Health Scholars, notes that most VR headsets are too large for users and that they do not work with buns, ponytails, and other long or bunched types of hair. Some strap styles may work well for these types of hair, though it is not agnostic. 

Others point towards the actual weight of the headset. They are bulky and large, which weigh down on people enough for pain. Yes, it’s an unsolvable point; a headset will always weight something. But some say it weighs too much, and it needs to shed weight for comfort. 

Others still reported barriers such as large controllers, as they are bulky. 

But for many? They do not feel any discomfort at all. They smash through the Beat Saber levels and come out happy, with no sickness present. It applies to both sexes. 

Anecdotal evidence based on small pools of data is not broad enough to draw trends. They are a collection of personal endeavours, which can be as diverse as the human race itself. But regardless, the insights are essential to discover latent needs; things which can be addressed based on feedback. And as with any product, it is critical to collect first-hand experiences from women as much as men, and address needs accordingly. 

I’m not sure if this is applicable as it’s not just women, but the halo design isn’t great for for women with long hair, as it tends to slip around. I had this issue with Windows headsets and Magic Leap. The Oculus Rift CV1 / Quest with a baseball cap worked better.

– KimberleyWTF, VR YouTuber and tech blogger

Are VR headsets designed for men more than women? 

We approached several headset manufacturers, asking whether VR headsets have any sex-related concerns. In response, a spokesperson from HTC came back with some preliminary concerns they found, echoing the barrier related to the interpupillary distance (IPD) between eyes. They also pointed out that it would negatively affect a small percentage of women:

As you have pointed out, women indeed tend to have a shorter interpupillary distance (IPD) than men… the mean female IPD is around 62 mm, while the male mean is 64 mm. VIVE products have a mechanical adjuster that allows customers to manually set the separation of the device’s lenses so that it more closely matches their IPD. 

The minimum IPD setting across VIVE devices varies but is generally around 60mm. This means that we likely already accommodate the majority of women, but perhaps not those closer to the 5th percentile, which is about 56 mm. 

Since we became aware of this issue, we have been investigating ways to increase the adjustability of our lens separation to better suit an even wider range of customers with future products.

HTC Spokesperson, 2020.

It is worth noting that, when developing any product, it is challenging to create them that fit everyone entirely. Children and particularly big or small adults will likely be left behind as companies target the average range. The more people it can include comfortably, the better. 

It is also worth noting that it isn’t necessarily sex-related. Smaller people, regardless of sex, would encounter the same issues. 

Finally, not all VR headsets are adjustable. The Oculus Go cannot be adjusted for each user, as one example. So for people with different IPDs, it is challenging to rectify. 

In any case, HTC confirms that a small percentage of women will feel motion sickness without being able to rectify it, at least on the hardware level. The company will correct it via lens separation, but are there other ways? 

Another issue is hair. Headsets dont work with buns, ponytails, women of color who have certain styles. An even larger issue for women is the hand controls. They are not made for our smaller hands.

– Christina Ingwalson, VP Marketing at Health Scholars

HTC Vive Pro
HTC Vive Pro. Photo credit: HTC.

Lowering motion sickness via eye-tracking

Microsoft cited the same concerns as well; that IPD is the key to minimising motion sickness. But their solution isn’t based on configuring lenses; instead, it is eye-tracking. A Microsoft spokesperson said the following: 

Your question about IPD is an excellent example of something that our team has worked very hard to assure great quality experiences for every person.

Keeping with Microsoft’s tradition of inclusive design, we developed HoloLens 2 to comfortably fit the broadest and most diverse range of people, with and without glasses. We tested on thousands of people to ensure that the device is comfortable and sets the bar for ergonomics and comfort.

Also, we have a process whereby every person that wears a HoloLens 2 will go through a quick eye calibration. This eye calibration ensures that the HoloLens 2 adjusts to each person’s own eyes (IPD) to provide the best holographic experience for that individual.

Microsoft spokesperson, 2020.

We think this will be the future standard for VR headsets. Configured options for eye-tracking provides an automatic, frictionless way to ensure headsets work effectively, ensuring the best comfort. While it may not come in the short-term, we can expect eye-tracking to become the norm with entry-level VR headsets.

Software fixes for VR motion sickness

So we have explored the hardware side. But what about software? A rickety experience will make anyone sick, no matter how good the headset. Good software and user experience (UX) is just as essential as hardware. 

AJ Shewki, Founder and CEO of LIV, suggested a range of tips to alleviate the issue. The first is to make sure the player doesn’t move unless they are moving IRL, to ease them into the world.

Building on this, we’ve found that teleportation mechanics in the game work as well. Both decrease nausea as movement control is in their hands, without pulling them forward out of their control. The feeling is known as the ‘meathook effect.’

Imagine standing in a virtual world, and you then tilt the thumbstick forwards. You then shoot across the map, as fast as the speed of sound, as you navigate around the map while running. In most cases, it induces nausea. By comparison, sitting people into a cockpit of a vehicle going fast minimises the effect, as they feel like they are in control. 

Alongside this, having an open space to play VR is essential, though many homes with VR set-ups do not have the technology nor the space. Take it from us, who currently live in London. 

Ultimately, it is up to VR developers to provide a smooth, clean way to transport players around, to make sure they do not fall ill. There will always be sea legs to adjust to, but the smoother the process, the better it would be — the solution drills down to the software level. Currently, developers are consistently finding new and innovative ways to improve comfort. 

From my research, I’ve found it might not only be the design, but to do with hormone levels – one expert I chatted to said women might be more susceptible to motion sickness depending on their menstrual cycle, if they were pregnant, menopause, etc.

– Becca Caddy, freelance journalist

Making VR design more inclusive 

The rabbit hole of research goes deep. We haven’t touched on one finding that hormones and menstrual cycles may impact VR viewing experiences, though the findings are inexhaustive. Becca Caddy also explored the topic, which is worth a read as well. (Many of the same conclusions here echo her article, particularly on locomotion).

But broadly, there are two areas that the industry must focus on: 

  1. On the hardware level, keep improving the product to be as inclusive as possible. The process will naturally occur with time, as innovations enable the VR headset design to evolve and develop.  
  2. On the software level, keep learning from previous experiences to lower nausea and motion sickness. Progress comes from an open dialogue between studios, developers, and companies in the industry sharing their thoughts and discoveries. 

Currently, VR is in the wild-west stage of development. Studios extensively explore the possibilities of improving the user’s comfort. Overcoming motion sickness is critical for further progress in the immersive industry. 

The solution, as always, is between developers and engineers to construct VR headsets that can be comfortable for everyone. We, alongside everyone else, will be following the progress closely. 

If you want to support women in immersive, consider joining or assisting Women of Wearables today:

Photo credit: Women of Wearables.

Lena Mandahus

Reporter, Virtual Perceptions

Lena Mandahus is a graduate from the University of Vienna, with experience copyediting articles.