How New Tech Could Prevent VR Motion Sickness

Faster refresh rates and better software may be key

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality could make fewer people feel motion sick if new technologies succeed. 
  • VR motion sickness happens when your brain receives conflicting signals about movement in the environment around you.
  • A leader at Oculus reportedly said the company might have found a way to prevent motion sickness.
Someone using a VR headset in a home office.

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Virtual reality can be fun, but it also makes some people sick, so researchers are working to make the experience more comfortable. 

John Carmack, a leader at headset maker Oculus, reportedly said recently that the company might have found a solution to prevent motion sickness. He suggested that better calculations about the depth of objects in VR could be the key.

It’s one of the growing number of methods that developers are exploring to make VR more comfortable. 

"Some people can experience physical side effects, including headaches, nausea, motion sickness, and eyestrain," Scott Stachiw, head of immersive learning at Roundtable Learning, a company that creates VR employee training tools, said in an email interview.

"When using VR, the user experiences a disconnect in the brain that causes motion sickness. They may also experience a headache or eye strain because of the graphics or VR headset itself."

Why You Get Sick 

VR motion sickness happens when your brain receives conflicting signals about movement in the environment around you, said Drexel University professor Emil Polyak, who specializes in VR. 

"The vestibular in the ear is sending different signals to the brain about what the body is truly experiencing," he said in an email interview.

"When the processed signal is in conflict with the visuals perceived as motion, the brain interprets it as a neurotoxin. In other words, 'You ate some poisonous berries that are messing with you; the best thing would be to vomit before it gets worse!' This reaction obviously was very important many thousands of years ago."

A parent and child using VR headsets together while laying down.

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Higher-resolution screens and higher frame-rate video can reduce motion sickness and improve with every generation of headsets, Matt Wren, the chief technology officer of BUNDLAR, an augmented reality solutions company, said in an email interview.

Software tweaks also can help. "One example is artificially causing tunnel vision when the user is moving quickly (center of view stays in focus but peripheral vision dims) from one location in a virtual environment to another," he added.

AMD recently filed a patent for technology that aims to prevent motion sickness in VR using a low-latency delivery method.

The company’s application mentions that the realistic experience of VR is facilitated by high visual quality and low latency. Latency refers to the time delay for the data to cross from VR sub-systems and VR devices.

The headset collects data on the user’s movement during use and sends it to a server to reduce latency, according to a recent blog post by a law firm that uncovered the patent application. 

Design Counts

The way the VR activity is designed can make a difference in combating VR sickness, Stachiw said.  "For example, the activity should be filmed at a higher frame rate and limit the need to look around quickly," he added.

"Generally, the higher the frames per second (fps), the less motion sickness, but you don't want anything below 72 fps, although some users are ok with 60 fps."

"We gradually get used to it over time as the body finds its balance in the new surroundings, and so the same caution and time should be given to VR experiences."

Better VR software could help as well. "Scenes that are heavily aliased (lots of jagged edges) can cause headaches, especially when it is affecting text," Stachiw pointed out.

"A common practice to use is good anti-aliasing. Other than that, it’s advised to make sure experiences do not move the user against their will; if they are moving, make it slow and in a straight line."

Sophie Thompson, the chief operating officer of VirtualSpeech, a VR soft skills training company, said in an email interview said you shouldn’t give up hope if you get a little motion sick when first trying a headset.

Her company doesn’t schedule in-app training longer than 12 minutes at first, in part to ensure people build up their exposure to VR content. 

"Lots of VR is novel to our brains, and so we should give ourselves time to adapt to it," Thompson said.

"As with other motion sicknesses, like being seasick, we gradually get used to it over time as the body finds its balance in the new surroundings, and so the same caution and time should be given to VR experiences."

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