New Atlas tests a wearable that claims to reduce or cure nausea and motion sickness, pitting it against the most stomach-churning VR games(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)
Before we'd tried much virtual reality, we imagined most VR experiences would involve physically sitting while virtually moving. Unfortunately, though, those kinds of games can trigger nausea for many (if not most) people. We recently tried a wearable that claims to reduce VR sickness by sending little electrical pulses into your wrist. After getting shocked by the Reliefband, we were a little shocked to find that it worked.
After more than two years of having VR systems in the offices, we'd resigned ourselves to the fate that virtual movement + physical stillness would always be a losing/barf-inducing combination. The best we could hope for were workarounds, like teleporting (used even in games where there's no supernatural explanation for this kind of sorcery) and surrounding the player with a stabilizing cockpit (like the inside of a ship or surface of a hovercraft).
Some brave/slightly-mad developers, however, forged ahead with these kinds of nausea-prone games nonetheless. To hell with keeping your roast-beef sandwich inside your stomach; we have virtual worlds to explore.
Two prime examples on the Oculus Rift were space-survival game Adr1ft and atmospheric mystery The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I only consider myself moderately VR-nausea-prone, but every time I tried either of these games, my stomach felt like it was doing slow-motion backflips. There was no question where I'd start testing the Reliefband.
First, a quick primer on what the Reliefband is. You put some conductive gel on your inner wrist and strap on the watch-like device, with its dial facing the inside of your wrist. After turning it on, it will send little electrical pulses into your wrist. (It's essentially a TENS unit in watch form.) You can adjust the level so that it's strong enough to be effective, but not so strong as to make your hand twitch.
The theory is that these little shocks to the median nerve at the P6 pressure point signal the brain's "nausea control center" to tweak the neural pathways between brain and stomach, thus preventing you from feeling like you're going to toss your cookies.
When New Atlas' VR team tested it, we found it to work remarkably well. While I still experienced the faintest traces of nausea, I'd estimate it was reduced by at least 70-90 percent when wearing Reliefband. It was easily comfortable enough to make it through the most ralph-inducing games.
In those two games I mentioned, I was able to play them as long as I wanted for the first time. (I only quit when I grew bored with them, not because of nausea.) Virtually floating through a wrecked space station in Adr1ft, an experience that made me feel sick just thinking about it, didn't cause any problems. And in Ethan Carter, a game where walking slowly through its virtual forests had previously triggered nausea, I was able to virtually run without any concerning symptoms.
Similarly, Emily tried the Reliefband while playing some particularly sickening Gear VR games (like bullet simulator Drift), and also felt a drastic reduction in queasiness.
Of course two game reviewers' experiences do not a double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific study make. But on a purely anecdotal level, we can vouch for Reliefband. It feels real to me: If this is a placebo, then it's a highly-effective one that worked far beyond our expectations.
Even if wrist-shocking proved to work for everyone, it wouldn't likely be the silver-bullet cure for VR motion sickness. While our jobs as reviewers have us regularly testing all kinds of wacky wearables, it's hard to see the general VR/gaming population seeing electrical wrist pulses as an ideal solution. (That isn't even mentioning the reluctance to spend US$90 to solve a problem that you could argue is the developer's fault.) At most, this is likely a short-term Band-Aid for those who want to enjoy some of the more nausea-inducing games without any unsavory side effects.
Still, it's the most effective fix we've found. And it doesn't involve teleporting: That once-clever trick quickly got overused by countless VR devs desperate to provide larger-world movement without requiring a barf bag. Now it just requires a wrist-placed TENS unit.
Reliefband is available now for $90. An updated version with sleeker design and new tech will be coming in Q2 for $150.