Mild Electric Shocks Can Cure VR Sickness

Mild Electric Shocks Can Cure VR Sickness
September 26, 2016

At this point I feel like I've written about a thousand intros spelling out why, exactly, virtual reality is an amazing futuristic revolution in gaming and media and everything else, so on and so on...
And that's all true. VR is incredible and absolutely here to stay, and the loud public skeptics are very soon going to look just as foolish as those who called the Internet a "fad" in the early 90s. But it's also the case that we're in the very early days of consumer VR, and developers and hardware manufacturers are still working the bugs out of the experience. And while bugs and rough edges aren't usually that big of a deal in gaming, the power of VR means that little problems can have big, nausea-inducing effects. 
So what's the solution to the nausea problem? Ideally, game developers would quickly realize that some control methods and game mechanics just don't work in VR, and would abandon those entirely for the new medium, but that message clearly hasn't gotten out yet. Hardware advancements (both in terms of the headsets themselves and the system you're using to power your experience) will also help, as the lag and stuttering caused by outmatched hardware is one of the most common causes of motion sickness. 
But if you don't want to wait for VR to be perfect before diving in (or if you're just especially sensitive to motion sickness), you may want to take a look at the Reliefband

What Does It Do?

The Reliefband is, in short, a bracelet that delivers mild electric shocks to your wrist in order to reduce or eliminate motion sickness. It's based on principles of acupuncture (which may or may not help convince you of its effectiveness) and is said to electrically stimulate specific nerves in the wrist in order to affect the rest of the body. The Reliefband is "clinically proven" for the treatment of nausea according to its website, and you can take a dive intothe actual clinical trial reports yourself if you're the kind of person who likes that sort of thing. 
A good place to start thinking about the Reliefband is to compare it to the better-known (and unaffiliated) product, the Sea-Band. Sea-Bands have been popular for years as drug-free treatments for nausea caused by sea sickness and pregnancy, and supposedly work through applying pressure on that same nerve that runs from your wrist to your spine. The Sea-Band website goes into more detail regarding the view of Western medical science on this acupressure effect:
"Put simply, stimulating the skin activates large diameter “touch” fibres. The touch message travels faster to the brain than the competitive and smaller “pain” fibres. As the brain can only process so many messages at once, the ‘gate’ to the brain is closed during the touch stimulation and the amount of pain felt is inhibited.
"Pressure also appears to stimulate nerve fibres running up the spinal cord and ultimately results in production of endorphins, morphine-like compounds which influence the hormonal and immune systems and inhibit the brain’s perception of pain - especially when associated with anxiety and stress."
I'll leave it up to you how convincing this explanation actually is, but if we accept that this is the principle behind the Sea-Band, which uses nothing more than pressure to alleviate nausea, it's easy to imagine how minor electrical stimulation might do the job even better. It would need to be a lot better though, to justify the cost of a $90 Reliefband compared to a $10 Sea-Band two-pack.

How Does It Feel?

To use the Reliefband you first apply a bit of "conductivity gel" to the skin on the inside of your wrist, which is a little weird but doesn't smell and isn't sticky or anything, so it's not bad. Then you strap the band itself on, doing your best to get the twin plates on the back of the device to settle into a sweet spot on your wrist.
The instructions provided with the Reliefband are helpful for proper placement, which you'll want to pay attention to in order to get the most out of the device. In my testing I found that tiny adjustments to the location of the device could dramatically affect how it felt, and it's no exaggeration to say that if you wear the Reliefband too loosely or a few centimeters out of place, you won't feel a thing (and it won't help your nausea at all). My best results came with the device snugly against my skin, tight enough that it didn't move around whether I was using an Xbox controller with the Oculus or swinging my arms around wildly with the Vive. 
The shock itself isn't painful or dangerous (we can assume the FDA wouldn't have cleared the device for sale if there was a health risk), but it also can't exactly be described as pleasant, especially on higher settings. The proper intensity level for you is supposed to be the lowest level you can feel, which for me was three but for others could be lower or higher. 
The device pulses every second or so, and you'll feel a buzzing tingle in your wrist and, for most people, an accompanying tingle running down into your fingers and up your arm as well. It tickles a little, and feels a bit like a minor version of the pins and needles you get when your hand falls asleep. Your fingers may twitch a little bit along with the pulse too, which may be alleviated by turning down the intensity.
For some in the office the experience was more unpleasant than for others, but nobody out of the dozen people who tried it described it as painful. In my experience it is definitely something you get used to, and it actually helps to have a VR game to focus on, as that allows the buzzing in your wrist to fade into the background.
My longest sessions with the Reliefband lasted for about an hour at a time, and sometimes I even had the device on level four out of its five intensity settings. After this kind of prolonged use my wrist did feel a bit tender afterwards, sort of like a muscle might a day or two after working out, but the feeling faded quickly. Importantly, it was always the other discomforts of VR (tired eyes and sweaty face chief among them) that caused me to end my sessions, not the feelings coming from the ReliefBand. 

Does It Work?

We tested the Reliefband with a variety of VR games, but I spent most of my time using it with Edge of Nowhere on the Oculus and InCell VR on both the HTC Vive and the Merge VR headset (running the game in Google Cardboard). 
My verdict? The Reliefband definitely worked for me, and it has become my go-to trick when I find a game that makes me feel motion sick. Because the buzzing can be mildly uncomfortable I wouldn't wear the band while playing a game that didn't induce motion sickness, and with most of my favorite titles on the Vive I don't find it necessary, but as soon as it becomes clear a game will make me queasy I'll pause and grab the Reliefband. 
Edge of Nowhere's behind-the-back third-person camera offers an interesting approach to VR that makes it a bit easier to take than other VR action games of similar intensity, but I still found myself suffering a kind of slow-building motion sickness while playing for longer than fifteen minutes. With the Reliefband I played for nearly an hour straight on multiple occasions, trading my nausea and headaches for a steady buzzing in my wrist. 

The true test of the Reliefband's nausea-busting powers, though, was InCell VR. It's a sort of racing game that takes you along a twisting, turning track while you collect power-ups and avoid obstacles, and is available for essentially all virtual reality platforms. InCell VR has you traveling forward at gradually increasing speed, and you control your horizontal movement around the outside edge of the track. For the most comfortable experience it's best to play the game with a controller of some kind, but if you want to test an anti-nausea device you play it with "head controls," and tilt your head to one side or the other to guide your motion. 
Unless you are one of the rare mutants that never gets motion sickness at all, playing InCell VR with head motion controls will make you feel ill. Especially when the track twists and spins back on itself like some kind of nightmare roller coaster, all while you're spinning around the circumference off that same circular track. 
It can be rough, is what I'm trying to say. 
With the Reliefband InCell VR went from something I couldn't stand for more than a single level into a tolerable (if still not very fun) experience. I tested the Google Cardboard version of the game repeatedly, trying it without the band, wearing the band but not having it turned on (to simulate a Sea-Band acupressure effect), and with the pulses active, and there was a clear and distinct difference in comfort levels. Wearing the inactive band was slightly better than not wearing it at all, but it was only with the device turned on that nausea fully disappeared. Other unpleasantness with the game remained, and I still felt dizzy and disoriented at times, but motion sickness was no longer a factor.  
Your mileage, of course, will vary. That's true for a lot of tech like this, which deals with individual sensations and comfort levels, and results from other journalists and clinical trials have been a little on the inconclusive side. That all makes it tricky to recommend the Reliefband without reservations at its $90 price. But it absolutely worked for me, and it's become a useful tool both for myself and when I want to help others experience VR without motion sickness. 

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