Virtual reality, real sickness

Some people feel sick when immersed in virtual reality — and that could prove bad for the VR business.

About 25% to 40% of the population is prone to motion sickness, that feeling of nausea and dizziness you get in a car or on a boat in a rolling sea. A similar percentage of people are affected when immersed in virtual reality and that makes Science News wonder if VR will ever “really catch on if it makes people sick.”

In game settings, the number of victims vary according to the games played. In one experiment, only two of 18 men and six of 18 women suffered from motion sickness. In another, six of the 18 men and 14 of the 18 women felt sick.

There are a few medical theories that attempt to explain motion sickness. According to the prevailing theory, it arises from a perceived disconnect between one sense and another. On a boat, for example, while your eyes see a stable environment, your body senses a shifting platform. The word “nausea” actually comes from “naus,” the Greek word for ship. A VR setting reverses the disconnect: your body is stable, but your eyes witness a shifting environment.

As long as VR remains confined to games, such downsides are not too dramatic, and chances are they will be reduced: headset manufacturers are working hard to develop programming tricks and technologies that should minimize and hopefully prevent the sickness. But if the problems can’t be overcome, they could present a serious hurdle as VR moves into other fields for example, in sales with virtual showrooms, in architecture with virtual home settings or in engineering with virtual design.