VR & The Mind: Motion Sickness – Why Can VR Make You Feel Dizzy?

VR's elephant in the room. What can cause you to feel sick in VR, and is enough being done about it?

Motion sickness is a notorious issue for virtual reality (VR) and something of a personal one for me. It’s what provoked me to look even deeper into how VR impacts the brain and it’s something which still deeply concerns me today.

Following the recent launch of Playstation VR, there could soon be millions of people strapping on headsets in their living rooms. Coupled with continued innovation from the likes of Google and Facebook’s Oculus, next year this could be in the tens of millions.  A growing number of these will be children, their brains much more malleable than the adult early adopters building the industry.  Now is the time to talk about this potential elephant in the room and address the issues that still exist.


I’ll dig into what really lies behind motion sickness, why VR can make us feel dizzy, what the technology needs to improve to reduce it and how we should manage it today.

If you read nothing else, when trying VR please take away these three things:

  • If you feel sick at all, just stop, don’t wait it out
  • Take regular breaks every 20-30 minutes
  • Talk about it. Rather than dismiss it as one of those things, we need to learn more about what the neurological impact of this technology could be and develop the appropriate guidelines


So, What Is Motion Sickness?

Everyone has probably experienced motion sickness at some stage.  That sickly, light-headed feeling you get when reading a book in the car or travelling on a boat in choppy seas. For our brains, it’s a product of dealing with mixed messages from what we see and our vestibular system that’s monitoring balance in our inner ear.  As neuroscientist Dean Burnett puts it, “It’s getting signals from the muscles and the eyes saying we are still and signals from the balance sensors saying we’re in motion. Both of these cannot be correct.”

An early theory from Michel Treisman argued that motion sickness could be an evolutionary response to food poisoning – a last ditch defence mechanism that makes our brain process the sensory mismatch as a reaction to toxins in our food and forces us to vomit them out.  Naturally, these type of theories are tough to prove and consensus focuses on the visual-vestibular mismatch. This was rather bizarrely tested in 1968 by placing deaf participants (without a functioning vestibular system) on choppy seas off Novia Scotia and seeing who felt ill.

None did.

But this is far from an exact science and as an investigation by the BBC concluded, “we still can’t predict who will get motion sickness, or when and where it might happen.”

As a result there’s no cure as such and treatments range from eating ginger to targeted medication.  Ultimately, the most effective treatment is repeated exposure to the environment which allows the brain to adapt to the new sensory inputs.
Why Can VR Make Us Feel Ill?

In the 90’s when VR made its first big push for the mainstream, motion sickness remained a major problem.  Nintendo’s Virtual Boy famously flopped in part due to its unique propensity to make people feel sick and have headaches.

Virtual Boy

I feel ill just looking at it now.

VR causes motion sickness by confusing your senses in the same way a moving car does.  If you move in a virtual environment in a way that doesn’t match what your body experiences, you’ll trigger motion sickness.  But,. unlike seasickness or car sickness VR doesn’t require motion. It can make you vomit in your living room.  In this sense VR has a lot higher propensity to make us feel ill because all movement is a mismatch to what our body actually experiences.

That is, at least, until we all have full haptic body suits where every physical input and output is reflected in the experience.

Unfortunately, motion isn’t the only issue.  Low latency and slow frame refresh rates can create a laggy experience which you might associate with slow loading web pages.  In VR the results are experiences that are disorientating and nausea inducing as well as frustrating.

Optics are another challenge. When in VR we are confronted with the vergence-accommodation problem where our eyes are having to focus on and accommodate a screen whilst also trying to converge on objects in the distance.  And these are just common issues, there are a range of other more specific and complex problems as explored further here and here.

In short, replicating a comfortable reality for our brains is a hard problem.

What Is Being Done About It Today?

Reports of the amount of people suffering are mixed.  The general cacophony of VR hype within the industry far outweighs the voices of caution as a VR entrepreneur has recently reflected himself. Beyond anecdotal individual reports however, widespread mass studies simply don’t exist yet.

That said, this is something that major players in the industry are paying serious attention too.  Oculus has its own documentation that specifically addresses simulator sickness and provides advice to developers on how to limit the impact.  As we’ve seen, managing movement is key.  Developers should avoid taking control of the camera away from the user and limit acceleration wherever possible.

Field of view (FOV) is another area receiving attention.  We see the world in 180 degrees whereas most devices currently provide a FOV around the 100 degree mark.  Logically, for an ever more realistic simulation, we need to drive towards a wider FOV. Counter intuitively, a larger FOV actually increases the likelihood of motion sickness as we’re more sensitive in our peripheral vision.  This is one reason why fixing a user in a static environment such as a cockpit or vehicle can help limit motion sickness.  Microsoft Labs are also developing an innovative solution using LEDs as a replacement for pixels in this wider field of vision – and if that doesn’t work, we could always just add a fake nose to every VR experience… Yet these methods are more akin to managing the symptoms rather than developing a full solution.

The LA based Mayo clinic is looking to get closer to the key issues.  It has developed technology which combines sensors and software to sync up your brain’s vestibular system to the virtual experience.  It claims it can use this to reduce the sensory mismatch that causes motion sickness.  It’s had limited uptake so far but demonstrates a potentially promising avenue of directly tapping into the fundamental neurological functions controlling balance where all these issues originate.

So, What Should You Do?

Unfortunately, the jury is out on whether motion sickness in VR can ever be fully nullified – if you’re susceptible to it, then certain experiences are going to make you uncomfortable.  Ultimately, given our brain’s unique propensity to adapt to its environment, the most effective method for people to overcome these sensations is to simply spend more time in VR.

As Oculus themselves state, “experience with VR makes you resistant to simulator sickness (which makes developers inappropriate test subjects)”

Worryingly, in one TechRadar review, despite the reviewer actively noting Black Mirror-esque reactions to his VR experiences: “The closest feeling I can pick out is the one where you look at yourself in the mirror and don’t really understand the person looking back at you. You’ll still be you, but it won’t feel like you at first.”

He continues to actively encourage his extended use approach and breezes over the issue -“These side-effects aren’t something that concerns me”. Well these side-effects should concern us.

Right now, with so many open questions around what extended exposure to VR could be doing to your brain we need to at least be cognizant of the potential issues.  Simple guidelines are a start and they can be boiled down to three things.  The same things mentioned at the start of this article:

  • If you feel sick at all, just stop, don’t wait it out
  • Take regular breaks every 20-30 minutes
  • Talk about it. Rather than dismiss it as one of those things, we need to learn more about what the neurological impact of this technology could be and develop the appropriate guidelines

On a personal level, I am still cautious every time I put on a VR headset.  Much of how I feel is potentially a psychosomatic symptom and something which others hopefully never experience.  What concerns me most is that left unchecked, we could be adapting our brains more for virtual reality than actual reality and introducing a much more troubling sensory mismatch.  If VR is ever going to go truly mainstream, more work needs to be done on not just making experiences more comfortable but also understanding the fundamental neurological impact.

Only then can we effectively educate people on how to use this potentially transformative technology.

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