VR sickness—the tendency for some players to become nauseated or disoriented after using virtual reality headsets—is a real problem for developers. VR’s exciting technological promise is great, but if users are stumbling around and feeling sick after its use, its staying power is reduced. Any technological problem is only a few innovations away from improvement, however, and game developers and other experts are actively trying to work against VR sickness, pioneering new augments and techniques to cut down on some of the potential for nausea.
What Causes VR Sickness?
Latency and persistence are two of the biggest hurdles developers need to overcome in dealing with VR sickness. Latency is the lag between input and tangible effect, such as the brief moment of time between pressing a button and seeing a change on the screen. The longer the latency, the higher the chance of VR sickness. When trying to compromise between realistic, high-definition graphics and latency, low latency should win out, to avoid the problem of VR sickness. The hardware requirements for VR make balancing both feasible, though it does depend on each individual game.
Persistence, the second major problem in eliminating nausea, refers to the amount of time an image remains displayed on screen between frames. Imagine turning your head, but instead of seeing a blurred scene as you turn, the image remains static—that confuses your brain and inner ear, increasing your sense of disorientation. Refreshing the screen more often and increasing the number of screens you see keeps that motion smooth. VR already requires a high refresh rate, but increasing that rate, along with individual tweaks to a game’s mechanics or visuals, can do more.
While there are other issues involved, such as your balance being thrown off by movement or the disorientation that occurs when you feel like you’re moving but your inner ear doesn’t register that movement, latency and persistence are two technological problems that every developer must face.
Visible Noses Reduce Player Disorientation
Losing your focus and becoming disoriented is a big problem in flight and driving simulators, due to the near-constant motion. A team of students at Purdue University noted a correlation between having a constant reference point in flight and driving simulators and lower instances of nausea.
To combat disorientation, the students experimented with introducing a visible nose to some VR applications as a reference point. While the nose didn’t make a huge difference, they found that participants in the study were able to play longer without feeling nauseated. Further, players usually didn’t even notice the addition of the nose to the game’s field of view, making it an unobtrusive method of decreasing nausea. It’s not a total solution, but it is a possibility for games looking to reduce the nausea factor, even by a small degree. When combined with other methods, the simple addition of a nose to the game’s field of view may be the answer some motion-heavy games need.
Technological Achievements Bridge Gap Between Physical and Presentation Problems
The Mayo Clinic has been working on combating the disconnect between graphic problems like latency and persistence and the way the inner ear understands movement. Their system, called galvanic vestibular stimulation, or GVS, uses electrodes to send electronic impulses to trick your inner ear into feeling as if you’re really moving.
The system attempts to eliminate the inner ear’s confusion at experiencing what feels like movement while remaining still. It’s the opposite of traditional motion sickness, where your inner ear feels the movement of being in a car but your brain has the sensation of remaining still. VR’s the opposite, so GVS uses these electronic impulses to trick the inner ear into feeling movement. It’s a fascinating possibility, but since VR systems are already in development, and few so far have been interested in adopting this technology, it’s not likely to hit the market anytime soon.
Games Develop Individual Methods of Combating VR Sickness
Quick movements while wearing a VR headset lead to a host of problems. When you move your head quickly, you’re dealing not only with the latency and persistence issues, but also the rotation of your head, which is a cause of dizziness, even without VR. But an immersed player needs to be able to look around frequently and freely in their environment to stay engaged.
Untold Games’ CEO and creative director Flavio Parenti is admittedly susceptible to VR sickness himself, so overcoming that was a big concern for him in the development of Loading Human. As a result, they’ve developed their own approach to movement in the game. Without giving too much away, they’ve figured out a way to reduce low-persistence induced nausea and disorientation when traversing the world. The solutions pioneered by Untold Games, and created specifically for Loading Human, help ease some of the disorientation of moving through a virtual space. Because Parenti struggles with VR sickness, a system that really works was essential for his game—even highly sensitive players have reported being able to play for longer lengths of time.
Other designers take other approaches. In FATED, Frima uses level design to eliminate some potential for motion sickness. Levels are largely flat, and constructed to lead the players down a linear, but still immersive path rather than including lots of twists or turns. Along with a constant speed, these elements are aimed to help reduce the disorientation that comes from rising, falling, and rotating in a virtual space.
In EVE: Valkyrie, CCP games have chosen to make movement always in the control of the player rather than including an autopilot option. While it might seem like autopilot would be a natural feature of a spacefaring game, letting the computer control your movement is an instant recipe for nausea in VR, like being in the passenger seat of a car that feels like it’s moving but isn’t. Putting the player in control ensures quick turns and movements are anticipated, leading to less chance for VR sickness.
VR Sickness is a Challenge, But Not an Insurmountable One
VR sickness is a hurdle to overcome, but it’s one developers are dealing with as they create games for virtual reality. Though low latency and persistence are in part solved by the technology itself, individual game developers are working to solve the others. With the amount of effort being made to eliminate disorientation, there’s a lot of potential for VR to be more widely playable in the not-so-distant future. Pioneers in the genre are proving that VR sickness is a temporary problem, one that can be ironed out of the technology with enough time and innovation.
Loading Human lets you explore a futuristic virtual world, engaging you in a story of relationships, love, life, and death. Preorder your copy today!