The concept of virtual reality has possessed the minds of sci-fi writers and technology enthusiasts since many decades ago, but only in the past few years it’s got quite close to become a part of our everyday lives. Although still far from ubiquitous, VR technologies are considerably popular nowadays: even if you’ve never worn a VR headset, we bet you know at least one person who has.
As it usually happens with innovations, virtual reality has its own problems that every industry player is trying to solve. Among the biggest ones is the motion sickness that many people complain of when trying a VR experience.
At the moment, there is still no silver bullet for this, however the industry has already seen a few ways to deal with the issue, both by improving hardware and software parts of the systems. And some of these ways already look pretty good.
Simply speaking, the main reason for people feeling sick when immersing into the VR experience is that in the virtual world their body is usually moving, while their body in the real world isn’t. This is actually the opposite to when some of us could feel light-headed in a car, sea ship or aircraft: in that case, our bodies feel the movement while the environment around is still.
To overcome this situation completely, HTC has recently announced its own VR headset Vive developed in collaboration with Valve. Unlike its competitors, including the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus, Vive allows the player to control motion in the virtual world by actually walking around the room.
Demonstrated to a number of journalists at the Mobile World Congress in March 2015, Vive works along two SteamVR stations that determine the user’s movements in a 15×15 feet space by laser impulses.
Although this seems to be an ultimate solution to the motion sickness problem, HTC’s product could create new issues of its own, including the possibility to run into a very real hard wall while using it. The system is able to issue a warning when the user gets too close to an obstacle, but who cares about that in the heat of a virtual battle? Another question is how many people can spare 225 ft² at home just for gaming? Probably not too many.
Another idea of how to reduce motion sickness has been implemented in Virtuix Omni, an omnidirectional treadmill the VR user can walk, run, strafe and jump on. Player’s movement is picked up by a Kinect sensor and passed to the system.
Less radical hardware solutions include an interesting British startup VRgo, which offers a new type of VR controller: a chair. The user wearing a VR headset can sit on this chair and control their movement in the virtual world by leaning to either side. While isn’t much, tilting over is supposed to be better than just standing still.
Yet another approach to the virtual reality is implemented in Microsoft’s HoloLens, a headset that the user can see through, which creates augmentations to the real world environment. Something in between virtual and augmented reality, HoloLens is fit for the most of use cases of other headsets but supposedly doesn’t provoke motion sickness: after all, you do move around and you see what’s in front of you.
Oculus, the virtual reality pioneer that has created the Rift, most well-known headset around, has been working on reducing motion sickness for a while. Its specialists say that the product has improved quite a bit in the past few years, first of all by decreasing the delay between the head movement and image on the display following. Currently it’s just 2 milliseconds, so probably there won’t be much improvement in this direction in the future.
The other software means used in various VR games and demonstrations to reduce the motion sickness are rather palliatives than remedies, but they seem to work, if Kotaku’s Chris Suellentrop is to be believed. Here’s a shortened version of his observations:
One way to mitigate this unpleasant sensation is to slow the player’s movement with a spacesuit or an underwater suit, making the avatar’s motion feel more like that of a vehicle than a body.
Another surprisingly effective option is to abandon the first-person viewpoint. At least two Oculus games use a third-person perspective. The player can still look around to see the scale and depth of the world, but disconnecting your avatar from your eyes somehow makes movement less unsettling.
Removing navigation from VR can make the experience extremely comfortable. Using your gaze to create movement in an otherwise on-rails experience is also very effective, and at its best, you forget that your forward movement is on autopilot.
Future is here
It seems like however big the motion sickness problem really is, there’s a number of great minds working on the ultimate solution, and chances are it will be found quite soon. Even now, with exactly zero VR headsets freely available for consumers, we can see several ways of overcoming the issue.
What’s necessary to remember when addressing the issue is that the reaction to virtual reality in general and ways to control it in particular can vary significantly depending on the person. This means first of all that the real extent of the problem will be seen when a significant number of gamers get VR headsets at home and start using them regularly.
Until then, we can relax and observe how one of the humanity’s dreams comes true; or, if you’re feeling enthusiastic about virtual reality, now is a great time to do something meaningful in this area.