Discomfort Associated with VR Headgear and How To Combat It
Using a $599 Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, it is now possible to dive with manatees, explore a creepy, shape-shifting mansion, and ride on a flying carpet, well until you start feeling like you’re about to barf. It’s a lot of fun, admittedly, one that could make you look like a complete idiot sitting with a clunky black gadget on your face. You’d however also probably get a more in-depth look at simulator sickness, feelings of nausea, dizziness, and eye strain that some people get when using VR.
When it’s properly done, virtual reality can be extremely immersive. You’d always know you’re not really in outer space or the depths of the ocean, but new consumer-geared headsets like Rift and HTC’s Vive make it possible to convincingly suspend belief, at least for a bit.
As reliable consumer VR is still in its infancy, the games, films, and other virtual experiences that people are making for these gadgets are still very much experimental; it’s hard to know exactly what will and won’t work until a lot of headset-wearing folks have spent time trying this stuff out.
How VR can make you sick
When things don’t work exactly as they should, VR can literally make you ill, or at least very uncomfortable. Issues like visual jittering can pop up with the hardware itself, others issues might relate to the ways content is made—things like rapid acceleration and deceleration can make you feel sick because there’s a disconnect between what you see and what your body feels.
To get a more thorough look at this, it is educative to try a variety of games and other experiences with different ratings (Oculus rates the games in its store in three categories: “comfortable,” “moderate,” and “intense”), like BlazeRush, where you race cars around a track, and Bazaar, where you rode a flying carpet around a bazaar, collecting food and coins and avoiding hungry crocodiles, annoying monkeys, and fearsome snakes.
One would quickly come to the realization that Oculus’s rating system is pretty accurate. Games and other experiences rated “general” are typically playable for some time without feeling sick or otherwise uncomfortable. Games rated “moderate,” such as the sci-fi shooter Gunjack, are a little step up in terms of intensity. Playing games rated “intense” is usually much, much harder and you’d probably have to stop and take off the headset in less than 10 minutes, probably feel ill for a while afterward, too.
The less chaotic the experience, the better
Situations where you’re in control of the velocity, and where things aren’t moving swiftly around you, will generally work much better. On a virtual trip through the Grand Canyon, for instance, you had a choice between three kayak speeds as you pass red rocks, water lilies, and ducked under a rushing waterfall. This control makes the experience feel a lot better.
After about 20 minutes, however, even if you don’t feel sick, your eyes and brain would probably need a break. While 20 minutes might be enough for short games and films, it would still be a lot harder to, say, watch a feature-length movie in VR or, perhaps one day, use the technology for work as a virtual desktop with endless displays.
What the experts say
Evan Suma, a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies who studies VR, commented about what this means for widespread adoption of the technology. After all, hardcore gamers are fond of playing console games on flat screens for hours on end, and gaming is expected to be a huge early market for the latest VR headsets.
Suma believes it’s a concern for widespread adoption, pointing out that simulator sickness is “one of the biggest challenges” that the VR community needs to solve.
He, however, wonders if people may end up adjusting to wearing headsets over time, making it more comfortable to wear them for longer. This theory is shared by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey; while he acknowledges sickness is still an issue that needs to be solved by game design, he has also expressed his believe that people will adjust to VR technology. It is perhaps noticeable, actually, as you continue playing more intense games over a couple days, it’s possible you found yourself less affected by the sudden turns and shakes.
Even if we cannot naturally adjust, there are already ways to help fix discomfort in VR. According to Suma, these range from using teleportation to move you from one point to another in virtual space to giving you a larger area to physically move around in while in virtual reality (for now, the Vive headset is more suited for this than the Rift).
Advancements in display technology may eventually improve things too.
It could also help to make headsets lighter. The Rift weighs about a pound while the Vive weighs slightly more. That may not sound especially heavy when you consider the kinds of headsets used for VR in the past, but Suma says research indicates that the more weight you put on your head the more inertia you have when turning it. That is, it takes more effort to start or stop turning and, as a result, some people feel sick.