Technology that the Mayo Clinic developed to help military pilots avoid nausea while using flight simulators may soon find its way into virtual-reality headsets, though you’ll have to be willing to tolerate some electrodes on your head to try it.
Mayo Clinic researchers have been working for over a decade on this technology, which uses software to analyze motion you see on a screen in front of you and an electrical current applied to your head to stimulate the inner ear in hopes of tricking you into feeling that motion. The idea is that this could alleviate the type of sickness that can that result from seeing motion but not feeling it since you’re not actually moving—the kind of thing that can happen while you’re playing a racing game in virtual reality, for instance.
As a step toward getting the technology into consumer products, the Mayo Clinic recently licensed the technology to a Los Angeles–based company called vMocion, which will itself license it to companies who want to use it for entertainment and media applications like films and virtual-reality games.
Brad Hillstrom, a doctor and cofounder of vMocion, expects that for virtual-reality applications, at least, it will be possible to add the technology to headsets, since the electrodes needed would lie mainly in areas that a headset already touches. At this point, vMocion won’t say when it expects the tech to be available for consumers, though it says it is talking to some VR headset manufacturers.
The kind of electrical stimulation behind the technology—known as galvanic vestibular stimulation, since it affects your sense of balance—isn’t a new idea; it’s long been looked at as a way to study balance. But it’s becoming increasingly popular as a potential fix for discomfort in the nascent field of consumer virtual reality: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has spoken about trying it out, and Samsung in March revealed that it’s been building electrode-containing headphones called Entrim 4D that aim to help with motion sickness in VR while letting you feel a sense of motion.
Mayo Clinic researchers say they’ve tried the technology out in their lab by showing people videos shot from a first-person perspective of things like a roller-coaster ride or mountain bike ride, which are viewed on flat displays and virtual-reality headsets. Algorithms extract motion data from each frame, which is sent on to the viewer—who’s wearing electrodes on the forehead, nape of the neck, and behind the ears—as electrical pulses meant to give a sense of things like pitch, yaw, and roll.
“The level and degree of presence that the technology conveys when you’re watching a sequence with galvanic vestibular stimulation, and when someone switches it off, is quite striking,” says Jan Stepanek, co-director of Mayo Clinic’s aerospace medicine and vestibular research laboratory.
Michael Cevette, also a co-director of the lab, says researchers studied the electrical signals of subjects’ stomach muscles to look for early signs of motion sickness when using the technology, and they determined that the combination of algorithms and electrical stimulus suppressed these symptoms.
Paul Dizio, an assistant professor at Brandeis University whose work looks at people’s motor control and spatial orientation, is skeptical. He says there is plenty of evidence that galvanic vestibular stimulation can reduce motion sickness, but that there’s not enough data to know how accurately you can control the kinds of directional sensations people feel from it.
He also notes that there can be side effects from using it like a phantom flashbulb effect, a tactile tingling sensation, or a feeling of champagne bubbles in your mouth. And he says that if someone is moving her or his head around in virtual reality while using the technology, it could create more issues.
“Plus you have to have these big electrodes on your head,” he adds. “Maybe that’s fine for a pilot that’s devoted to training of some kind, but again, it’s not without costs.”
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