VR reality headsets are the most successful gaming peripheral to emerge in the last few years. They allow the player to completely immerse itself “inside” the game. They have managed to sell millions of units and an even greater number of games.
However, this new technology faces a lot of problems if it’s to keep growing in the future, chief among them is that some players get sick after using the headsets. This is what is called VR sickness, and is common across all headsets (Oculus, HTC, Index) and on every platform (PC, mobile, and the Playstation VR).
But, what is this sickness exactly? Why does it occur? And what can be done to prevent it?
What is it?
The most common theory is that it is simply motion sickness that occurs when you play VR. The symptoms are all the same; nausea, headaches, dizziness. The degree of severity of each of these afflictions varies from individual to individual.
Some may feel dizzy for just a couple of minutes after playing, others may experience discomfort for hours or even feel the urge to throw up, while a lucky number of players will not be affected at all.
The likelihood of a player being affected by this illness seems to be related to several different factors. Women are reported to experience this phenomenon more often than men. Age plays a role as well; people over fifty or under thirteen are more susceptible to motion sickness.
There a few more “esoteric” characteristics that may determine how likely you are to get dizzy with VR, like your mental rotation ability (the ability to visualize and rotate objects in your mind) or your state of rest (tired or fatigued people are more likely to get dizzy compared to well-rested peers).
Overall, if you are a person who is liable to get motion sickness on a car, train or boat, chances are you are going to be affected by playing VR games as well.
This “VR sickness” is not a new phenomenon. Pilots have been getting nausea and dizziness from flight simulators since they were invented. However, It wasn´t until the VR headsets became popular that this problem got into the mainstream.
Why does it happen?
The prevailing theory is that this sickness manifests due to a disconnect between what your brain believes is happening and what your body tells it you are doing.
If your eyes tell your brain that you are currently jogging across a desert, but your legs remain still on your couch, your brain can get confused and cause you to feel disorientation and/or nausea.
This is similar to “normal” motion sickness that occurs when, for example, you are looking out the window and notice that you are moving quite fast, but your body remains immobile inside the car, there is a dissonance within your brain that leads you to experience uneasiness.
However, this is not the only cause for the sickness. Anything that can provoke a disconnect between your game, body, and brain may lead to dizziness and headaches.
Things like poor resolution, bad animations, and low refresh rates can also confuse the brain. If the game can´t keep up with your movements, that’s another cause for the sickness.
This is why cheaper headsets tend to cause more discomfort. While VR sickness occurs in every headset on the market, high-end ones have it happen less, as the image is clearer and more “lifelike”, leaving little room for your brain to get confused.
How to prevent it?
The explanation above is all well and good, but what if you already spent hundreds of dollars on a VR headset and can´t play for more than an hour without getting a splitting headache? Is there a way to prevent that from happening and get your money´s worth?
The most common way to stop getting nausea and dizziness from VR is to keep playing, as counterintuitive as it sounds. Most players get used to wearing the headset after a few sessions, and the motion sickness all but disappears.
Of course, there are other alternatives if you don´t want to spend your first hours of VR with your stomach churning or if you are one of the unlucky few who can´t get used to it.
If your eyes start watering and your stomach is turning, taking a five-minute break might be all you need to get better.
A small pause every hour or so of playtime can do wonders to prevent yourself from getting sick. If you are still dizzy even with the headset off, try focusing your sight on a single point for two minutes to get better again.
Focusing your eyes on a single, fixed point, is a true and tested way of fighting nausea, and it works in VR too. If you don´t want to take off your headset, you can focus on something inside the game instead. The effects should be the same.
Have you noticed that many VR games allow you to move by teleporting around? Well, that is done to prevent motion sickness, as it tends to happen due to the disconnect between your actions in the game and your body, namely, that your character is walking, but you are not. This is also the reason VR movies don´t have to deal with this problem.
Using the teleport or moving slowly are pretty good ways to prevent getting motion sickness from happening in VR games.
Your eyes should move slowly as well. Even if you only move around by teleporting, if your eyes twitch all over the scenery and your head swivels around like a rotating door, you are liable to get motion sickness as well.
Small and deliberate movements are the key to having a smoother experience.
On the other hand, ditching your gamepad and grabbing a pair of motion controllers might be just what you need to prevent the dizziness from occurring in the first place.
As said before, motion sickness can be caused by the disconnect between what your brain thinks you are doing and what your body tells it you are doing. If there is little to no disconnect, thanks to the motion controls, there should be no reason for you to get dizzy in the first place.
As VR sickness is a manifestation of motion sickness, most of its traditional remedies can work as well. Some people say that they feel better playing with a fan blowing wind on their faces, others argue that drinking water beforehand prevents sickness. A few go so far as to take Dramamine before playing to alleviate the symptoms.
If everything else fails, the problem might be with your headset rather than with you.
Try adjusting the lenses, and check if your computer (if you are playing on a PC) has the recommended specs for the goggles and the game you are playing. When it comes to VR, bad graphics can literally make you sick, so make sure that your PC is up to snuff.
VR sickness is, to put it simply, motion sickness that you get from playing VR. Because the headset is telling your brain that you are within a game, but your body denies this, the resulting dissonances can give you nausea, dizziness and/or headaches.
More and more technology is being developed in the field of VR so that this stops being a problem in the future. From futuristic solutions like automatically adjusting lenses, to more curious fixes, like adding a virtual nose to the game.
For the time being, however, motion sickness is one of the main problems that stop people from trying out VR and is something that most newcomers will have to deal with after buying a headset.
The good news is that it goes away naturally, most players will get used to the headset and stop getting sick in a week or two.
For those that can´t stand the process, there are other ways to mitigate the effects; teleporting to move around (when possible), taking breaks, fixing your sight to a single point for a minute and making slow eye movements while playing.
At the end of the day, motion sickness should not stop you from enjoying VR games, there are plenty of ways to mitigate its effects and get used to the headsets.