VR’s Motion Sickness Problem — And How To Hack It (With The Help Of Your Cat)

Grab a furry friend, and prepare for the ride of your life.

Cat Spiral by Lililashka

The engine roars. A sleek, swooping metal body hurtles towards the sunset. My view from the driver’s seat is almost at ground level, unobstructed. Approaching the next curve, I focus and tighten my grip. A hundred metres before the bend, I slow down and sail through. But the road straightens up almost immediately: I tilt the controller to adjust the angle but it’s too late. My car spins out of control and I hit the barrier.

Suddenly, the headset felt heavier than its 610 grams, and I started sweating. I had to stop.

At first the spins made me dizzy, but I recovered almost instantly. As the game progressed, however, I started to feel nauseous. The sensation persisted. The graphics and sound quality of Playstation Virtual Reality (PSVR) are pristine; I felt fully immersed, and wanted to carry on with the game. But suddenly, the headset felt heavier than its 610 grams, and I started sweating. I had to stop.

As VR’s popularity surges, so do its side effects — and motion sickness is among the main issues, physiologically speaking, at least. If you’re the sort of person who gets nauseous on a boat or after a rollercoaster, chances are, you’ll be similarly affected by VR.

Several studies have shown that VR-induced nausea is comparable to what many people experience in virtual vehicle training environments, such as flight simulators.

A growing trend

It turns out I’m not alone in suffering VR-related nausea — far from it, in fact. Motion sickness in a rising trend associated with the technology. Sickness induced by a virtual experience is often the result of mismatched signals between the vestibular system, which directs our sense of movement, and our visual perception. In other words, the brain protests at inconsistencies between the movement of a player’s body and what her eyes see in the game. This is exacerbated by VR’s positional tracking sensors, which are far from ideal at this early stage.

Oculus’s official website includes VR motion sickness in its health and safety guide, comparing it to seasickness. Several studies have shown that such nausea is comparable to what many people experience in virtual vehicle training environments, such as flight simulators.

What’s more, low framerates, latency and hiccups in positional tracking also contribute to the problem. The higher the framerate (at least 90 fps), the lower the chance of simulator sickness. While the PS4’s non-VR games have an average 60 fps, the company aims to push the number to at least 120 fps for its VR version, in order to curb undesirable symptoms. HTC Vive and Oculus are taking a similar approach.

Hacking the system

As discussions on the topic intensify, gamer communities on platforms like Reddit and Quora offer ingenious hacks to avoid VR motion sickness. Popular cures include fresh ginger tea, travel sickness medication, slowing down character speeds and changing viewpoints, lowering screen brightness, using a faster computer to increase the framerate, adding a static point in the frame such as a virtual nose, and self-medicating with alcohol.

By shifting my focus from the vertiginous virtual car race to the real world, Gio helped me recover.

As for my own bout of motion sickness, I accidentally stumbled upon another, as-yet-undiscovered treatment. As I lay recovering on the sofa, my grey cat, Gio, jumped up next to me and made himself comfortable on my arm. As all cat owners know, if your cat settles on you, you stay put for a while. By shifting my focus from the vertiginous virtual car race to the real world, Gio helped me recover.

Pet companionship is a scientifically proven antidote to anxiety. Petting a friendly animal significantly reduces anxiety and fear by releasing oxytocin, a stress-relieving hormone. Research has even shown that cat owners have a markedly lower risk of heart attack.

Even for those lucky enough to be immune to VR motion sickness, having a pet can still be useful when it comes to tech related woes. According to Gamer Anonymous sites such as Olganon, adopting an animal is a well-known way to aid recovery in video game addicts. The added sense of responsibility, activity and companionship have been shown to ease withdrawal symptoms.

Try before you buy

VR is undoubtedly an exciting trend, with early adopters eager to get their hands on the expanding universe of gadgets around it. Yet the technology is still in its infancy and comes with a significant drawback to some — myself included. So my advice is this: Before investing in 1,000-plus Euros worth of gear, first spend some serious time trying it out, or make sure the shop you buy from has a good return policy.