Virtual reality devices are becoming more and more common, letting people explore digital worlds by being in movies or games. But this also means more people might experience virtual reality sickness or cyber sickness. It’s a lot like motion sickness, with symptoms like disorientation, headaches, and feeling like you have to puke. Both seem to happen when your senses disagree about whether or not you’re moving. But there are certain problems that are unique to VR, so those are what researchers are really trying to fix.
Some of the causes of VR sickness are just limits of technology. For example, if you turn your head but the computer doesn’t tweak the virtual world right away, that’s a latency issue. Or the world might flicker, because the screens aren’t updating quickly enough, which is a problem with the refresh rate.
Companies are working on these things. But a lot of people still get VR sickness because their brains are getting conflicting signals from their senses. So, researchers from the Mayo Clinic created something to trick your brain into thinking your body is moving. Normally, the vestibular system in your inner ear detects movement with fluid and sensitive hair cells, and sends that information through nerves to your brain. This technology, called galvanic vestibular stimulation, uses small electrodes on a person’s head to send tiny electrical pulses, and stimulate those same nerves whenever they move in the virtual world. And these pulses seem to do the trick! The brain thinks it’s seeing and feeling movement, and people using this system seem to get VR sickness less often.
However, other scientists think there might be a simpler solution. One idea from Columbia University engineers involved shrinking a user’s field of view when they moved quickly in a virtual world. It’s kind of similar to focusing on a distant object to help with motion sickness: See, close objects at the edge of your vision seem like they’re moving faster than objects that are far away and in front of you. By subtly blocking the edge of your vision, the virtual movement might not seem as jarring.
Other scientists from Purdue University have found that a large, virtual nose at the bottom-center of the screen can help. They aren’t exactly sure why it works, but having a stationary thing in your view, like your nose in real life, might just make you feel more stable. Plus, it’s preparing us for smell-o-vision. Most of these studies are pretty small, so it’ll take a lot more research to figure out how to help everyone who gets VR sickness. But pretty soon, you might be able to fly spaceships through virtual galaxies without wanting to hurl afterward.
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