Over the past week I dived with manatees, explored a creepy, shape-shifting mansion, and rode on a flying carpet. I also spent a lot of time feeling like I wanted to barf.
Admittedly, I was using a $599 Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset. It was a lot of fun, though I looked like a complete idiot sitting with a clunky black gadget on my face. I also got a more in-depth look at simulator sickness—feelings of nausea, dizziness, and eye strain that some people get when using VR—and what it means for the future of this technology.
When done properly, virtual reality can be incredibly immersive. I always know I’m not really in outer space or the depths of the ocean, but new consumer-geared headsets like Rift and HTC’s Vive make it possible to suspend belief, at least for a bit.
But reliable consumer VR is still in its infancy. The games, films, and other virtual experiences that people are making for these gadgets are very much experimental; it’s hard to know just what will and won’t work until a lot of headset-wearing folks like me have spent time trying this stuff out.
And when things don’t work just right, VR can literally make you ill, or at least uncomfortable. Some issues can pop up with the hardware itself, like visual jittering. Others relate to the ways content is made—things like rapid acceleration and deceleration can make you feel sick because what you see isn’t matching up with what your body feels.
To get a more thorough look at this, I tried a variety of games and other experiences with different ratings (Oculus places the ones in its store in three categories: “comfortable,” “moderate,” and “intense”), like BlazeRush, where I raced cars around a track, and Bazaar, where I rode a flying carpet around a bazaar, collecting food and coins and avoiding hungry crocodiles, annoying monkeys, and fearsome snakes. I watched short films, like Invasion!, and I tried out environmental explorations like Ocean Rift.
I was happy to realize that Oculus’s rating system is pretty accurate. Games and other experiences rated “general” were typically playable for a while without feeling sick or otherwise uncomfortable. Games rated “moderate,” like the sci-fi shooter Gunjack, were a bit of a step up in terms of intensity. And playing games rated “intense” was much, much harder. In less than 10 minutes I had to stop and take off the headset, and I felt ill for a while afterward, too.
Situations where I could control my velocity—and where things weren’t moving swiftly around me—seemed to work much better. On a virtual trip through the Grand Canyon, for instance, I could pick between three kayak speeds as I passed red rocks, water lilies, and ducked under a rushing waterfall. I spent 20 minutes just looking at the scenery; it felt almost meditative.
And that was largely my limit—after about 20 minutes, I might not feel sick, but my eyes and brain needed a break. That might be enough for short games and films, but would make it a lot harder to, say, watch a feature-length movie in VR or, perhaps one day, use the technology for work as a virtual desktop with endless displays.
I asked Evan Suma, a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies who studies VR, what this means for widespread adoption of the technology. Hardcore gamers, after all, are fond of playing console games on flat screens for hours on end, and gaming is expected to be a huge early market for the latest VR headsets; does it matter if people can’t use it for very long?
Suma thinks it’s a concern for widespread adoption, saying simulator sickness is “one of the biggest challenges” that the VR community needs to solve.
He wonders, however, if we may adjust to wearing headsets over time, making it more comfortable to wear them for longer. This is a theory Oculus founder Palmer Luckey believes in; while he acknowledges sickness is still an issue that needs to be solved by game design, he has also said that he thinks people will adjust to VR technology. I noticed it myself, actually, as I continued playing Bazaar over a couple days and found myself less affected by sudden turns of my flying carpet.
Whether or not we can naturally adjust, there are ways to help fix discomfort in VR. Suma says these range from using teleportation to move you from one point to another in virtual space to giving you a larger area to physically move around in while in virtual reality (right now, the Vive headset is more suited for this than the Rift). Eventually, advancements in display technology may improve things, too.
Making lighter headsets could help as well. The Rift weighs about a pound; the Vive weighs slightly more. That may not sound that heavy, especially when you consider the kinds of headsets used for VR in the past, but Suma says research indicates that the more weight you put on your head the more inertia you have when turning it, which means it takes more effort to stop turning and, as a result, some people feel sick.
Improvements like these will take a while, but I’m willing to wait: when you do get a truly immersive virtual-reality experience, like some of the ones I had, it’s riveting—even in 20-minute increments. In the meantime, I’ll be spending my non-nauseous time in the Oculus Rift shuffling between my kayak and flying carpet.