Virtual reality is the future – but it turns my stomach

Matt Clinch
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Sony Playstation VR Goes On Sale
Motion sickness among VR users could limit uptake... at least in the short term (Source: Getty)

I was lucky enough to try out Sony’s new virtual reality (VR) headset this month for its Playstation 4 video game console.

It was the first time I had experienced VR since the mid-1990s, in the days of the mega-arcades in London’s Trocadero (now sadly defunct). This new generation of an old concept managed to blow my mind. But it also managed to turn my stomach.

On the whole it was a positive experience. Games like London Heist, Danger Ball, Ocean Descent and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood are a genuinely thrilling experience and hint at a world of possibilities for the new format.

Another high point was a VR cinema application called Littlstar which allowed me to check out 360-degree films, newsreels and documentaries. One minute I could be in among Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Bedford, New Hampshire. The next I could be staring at ruins in Syria’s war torn city of Aleppo.

More notable moments included watching the beautifully animated virtual reality story Allumette. Then there was the brief but deeply unsettling Resident Evil demo called The Kitchen. Despite being only a few minutes in duration, it was scary enough for me – a 35-year old man – to start screaming and rip the VR goggles off my head.

Read more: Occulus Rift, but for energy: how VR could shake up the energy market

Nonetheless, despite the excitement and the enjoyment, there was a serious downside for me. I consider myself to have a strong stomach but some VR games were just too much for me.

The nausea came when a video game required movement with the control stick. It was fine when your character was sitting or standing still. Titles like Battlezone, Scavengers Odyssey and Eve: Valkyrie were some of the culprits. The latter was particularly bad, with the ability to perform fighter jet-style barrel rolls if I hit a (wrong!) button.

PlayStation 4 Pro Launches in Stores Nationwide
A fan uses the headset (Source: Getty)

My motion sickness would come on strong after only a few minutes of game time. Occasionally it would last for hours afterwards and sometimes force me to go to bed. Searching around the internet, it appears I’m not alone. This is obviously anecdotal evidence but there are some academics already trying to tackle the problem.

“The visual motion cues that users see are at odds with the physical motion cues that they receive from their inner ears’ vestibular system... When the visual and vestibular cues conflict, users can feel quite uncomfortable, even nauseated,” Steven K Feiner, a professor at Columbia University, said in a new research report in June with engineering student Ajoy Fernandes.

Their study used Sony’s VR rival Oculus Rift – owned by Facebook – and signed up 30 voluntary participants. They had the aim of curing this type of motion sickness using field-of-view restrictors and wanted to only proceed with users who actually experienced nausea. They found that 24 out of the 30 volunteers did.

Read more: Oculus starts shipping Rift virtual reality headsets

There’s no doubt that Facebook and Sony are undertaking their own extensive research. The latter declined to comment when contacted by CNBC and was not able to send any research that it had conducted.

George Jijiashvili, an analyst at research firm CCS Insight, told CNBC that it’ll be up to the developers to change the game mechanics to solve this problem. “Game developers are still in the learning phase... They are learning what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.

Jijiashvili explained that teleporting in video games could be a solution. A game called Windlands tries to alleviate the problem by snapping sharply to the left/right when the user moves their head. Another rival headset, the HTC Vive, has room sensors, meaning the user can physically walk around, something the PS4 VR currently doesn’t allow.

Will this nausea be a barrier to entry for the mass market? I’d certainly prefer to trial run any VR system in the future before making a purchase.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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