Vomit Reality. Are VR environments making us physically sick?

Image: Leo Reynolds - Flickr
Alex Stockwell

The success of VR’s first blockbusters show huge potential, but our brains are still having a hard time making sense of it all.

It was reported that back in the early days of cinema, audience members, when first shown footage of a train arriving at a station, were so completely convinced by the illusion that they would run screaming from the theatre, believing that the train was about to come crashing through the screen.

Now, over 100 years later, virtual reality tech is causing similar problems when it comes to playing nasty tricks on our primitive monkey brains. Motion sickness is presenting itself as a real-life obstacle for VR developers across the industry.

The problem is down to the sensory conflict of what your eyes are seeing and how it’s not quite matching what is actually happening to your body, causing your inner ear to freak outand send confusing signals to the brain, leading to overwhelming feelings of nausea and dizziness.

Despite these problems, the success of recent VR games such as Resident Evil 7: Biohazarddemonstrates the market potential of the latest generation of VR gaming, and as new research emerges and improvements in development are being made, the VR experience is slowly but surely changing for the better.

Understanding the brain makes for better games

Thomas B. Talbot, MD, the principal medical expert for the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Industries, offers insight on the problems currently facing VR:

VR heavily depends on visual dominance, which means that your mind believes what it sees over the other senses… nearly all of VR is heavily entwined with neurobiology…one really needs to understand human perception and how it works on a biological level.

Findings though work conducted by people like Dr. Talbot and his team have given tech and gaming developers a better understand of the science behind the causes of VR discomfort, and more specifically, what can be done to alleviate it.

For example, developers have realized that games that feature the player being in a fixed position (such as the spaceship cockpits of Elite: Dangerous, or at one of the various workstations in the VR hit, Job Simulatorcauses fewer adverse effects than those that require us to move around independently.

However, there are problems other than sickness associated with these “fixed position” games. Not long after the release of the HTC Vive, videos emerged of people brewing potions as virtual wizards only to forget that workstation in front of them didn’t actually exist, and would fall to the floor when attempting to lean on it for support.

The question remains, of course; with voice becoming an ever-present and central component of the rich VR experience, will that – the one aspect over which we retain full control – ease our digital dysphoria?

The future of VR is looking less problematic

Getting back to the issue of VR-induced nausea, a company named Reliefband have created a clever gadget to combat motion sickness, and are now marketing it towards the VR industry. It is essentially a wearable device that emits a variable electric pulse at the pressure point on the wrist associated with nausea, with initial reviews showing effective results for sufferers.

Additionally, more work is now being done to explore the potential mental health benefitsoffered by VR as an effective treatment for conditions such as anxiety disorders, phobias and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

These kinds of advances, alongside a better understanding of the physiological effects of VR, are those that could bring huge and lasting improvements in the years ahead.

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