VR vs. Simulator Sickness

Modern VR headsets might be much more advanced than near-20 year HMDs, but they’re still tackling similar issues.

In these early days, virtual reality (VR) faces a number of challenges. Many of them are minor bumps in the road; no doubt the likes of the Oculus Rift VR headset will deal with audio issues and developers should be able to think outside the box for third-person solutions. But there’s one issue that could prove to be a huge hurdle for the technology. This is something that doesn’t relate to a title’s quality but to our personal health. That something is simulator sickness.

OculusRift_3While the best VR experiences trick us into believing we’ve left our sofas and armchairs and have stepped into new worlds, not one title has managed to go all the way just yet. The current technology simply doesn’t allow for it. Developers can get painfully close to the real thing, but that little gap left is what’s causing simulator sickness.

Think back to 1995, when Nintendo released its Virtual Boy VR console. It was a commercial failure that never saw release outside of Japan and the US. One of the issues associated with Nintendo’s misstep is the headaches it caused after a short amount of time. Contemporary VR headsets might be much more advanced than that near-20 year old machine, but they’re still tackling similar issues.

Simulator sickness involves the user starting to feel ill after using a headset for as little as 2 or 3 minutes. It can be attributed to a number of issues that sever the connections between our senses. It may be caused by something as simple as a small amount of latency between a player turning their heads and the camera catching up to them. It could be that you’re looking at something convincing, but there’s a disconnect between what you see and what you hear, feel or smell. If a headset such as the Oculus Rift were to reach the mainstream market with these issues unresolved, it could be problematic.

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Latency is the biggest threat. While the head tracking technology fitted to current VR headsets is undeniably impressive; the built-in displays can’t quite keep up with our eyes. It takes less than a millisecond of a delay between turning your head and the camera following on for our minds to realise something’s not right. This can lead to feelings of nausea, dizziness and headaches. In terms of the Oculus Rift, the current developer kit is fitted with a display that carries around a 15 millisecond delay. As small as this amount of time may be, it’s enough to sever the connection between sight and other senses.

The good news? Developers are aggressively combating this issue. Last January Oculus VR unveiled a new version of the Oculus Rift named Crystal Cove. It replaced the current model’s LCD screen with an AMOLED one, which is capable of much faster pixel switch, reducing the latency to less than a millisecond. These improvements will go on to be included in the eventual consumer version of the Rift. Meanwhile, Game Face Labs, the makers of the Android-based Game Face headset, are also devoted to drastically reducing latency on their device.

Despite all of this, there’s no escaping the fact that VR headsets are essentially designed cut off your vision to the real world and trick your eyes and mind into thinking they’re seeing digital images that aren’t really there, all just inches in front of your eyes. Moderated used will be the only true way to avoid the unpleasant feelings that prolonged use gives off. That might not sound like the ideal option, but even contemporary videogames carry messages about taking breaks.

Tackling simulator sickness is one of the biggest challenges the VR industry faces. It’s likely that we won’t even know how successful Oculus and its competitors have been until a while after widespread release. VR is an incredible thing, but we shouldn’t be putting it before our health, and that’s on us as much as it is the developers.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions. 

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