Startups and researchers aim to blur the lines of reality for your subconscious.
OXFORD, England—I first met Dr. Charles King at his "graduation" from Richard Branson’s Virgin Media Techstars accelerator. The pitch he delivered to a packed audience in London described how ROVR—the company he started in 2012 with co-founder Julian Williams—was addressing a fundamental problem with the much-touted Virtual Reality boom: No matter how fun your content is, if it makes people throw up, it’s probably an experience they can do without.
According to King, two-thirds of us experience some degree of discomfort in VR even if we don’t quite “sell the Buick” as he so colorfully puts it. But Simulator Sickness (SS) is no laughing matter. A handful of experts say that exposure to some forms of VR can be as disorientating as getting drunk, and they call for headsets such as the Oculus and HTC Vive to be banned until more research is done on the long-term effects this has on our eyes and brain.
The safety of VR is a subject very close to my heart. I love VR, and writing about it is not something I can do without actually experiencing it first-hand. Yet I was always one of those annoying kids who had to sit at the front of the bus, and I started getting woozy in the car after about 15 minutes. To this day, I find it difficult to read on the train and usually resort to motion sickness tablets to get me through long-haul flights. Boats? Don’t even go there.
Susceptibility to VR sickness varies quite a lot from person to person, but research indicates that there is a general correlation between a propensity toward motion sickness and susceptibility to SS. While I certainly fit that description, simulator sickness is different from normal motion sickness. SS is not caused by actual motion but by the visual information from a simulated environment. In the absence of motion, an uncomfortable conflict is created between the visual, vestibular (balance), and proprioceptive (bodily position) senses.
So when, following his Techstars demo, King invited me to try out the Wizdish—a VR treadmill that claims to solve this illness problem by providing a more natural interface between the users and their virtual environment—I arranged to meet them in Oxford, where the company is currently based.
From "VR treadmill" to saving your subconscious
ROVR’s home locale is no coincidence; this is not some happy-go-lucky startup, but a rigorously researched venture grounded on quite a lot of hard science. Neither founder exactly fits the stereotype most people would associate with tech entrepreneurs (it is safe to say that King was by far the oldest presenter at the demo day), and both come from solid professional backgrounds. Williams worked as an engineer for the BBC for more than 30 years, while King has decades of experience as a consultant in the corporate sector and a doctorate in Physics, Metallurgy, and Science of Materials.
How did the two meet? “Serendipity is often the path to invention,” King tells me as we drive from the train station to the lab at Oxford Brookes University where they tested their current prototype. Williams had been interested in Virtual Reality technology since 2001, and he filed thepatent for the “VR Treadmill” concept in 2008. The concept worked by simulating walking movements through sliding your feet backward and forward on the device surface using roller skates.
This turned out to be far from ideal, however, as the level of friction was simply too low. Wearing the skates ended up changing people’s perception of height, thus interfering with their experience. “We hold a body map in our brain, and this is extraordinarily important,” King explains. “If you become taller for any reason, all of a sudden your center of mass goes up, your center of balance changes, and the body has to do a lot more work to keep you stable.”
So Williams put the word out that he needed to find a low-friction alternative that would allow people to freely move their legs on a surface without wheels, and a mutual acquaintance introduced him to King. By this point, King had a well-earned reputation as a materials expert. And what Williams didn’t realize at the time, King says, was that his design was tapping into an overarching neurological truth.
“You’ve walked a lot today, but if you actually wracked your brain about how you did it, there are no memories,” he says. It turns out it’s a process we all do unconsciously by the time of adulthood:
"If we were to process all of the individual actions required to walk on our active conscious, our RAM couldn’t handle it. Once you get past toddler stage and you’ve fallen over and stumbled and done all the things that are necessary in order to learn to walk, it becomes an autonomous action. You’ve only got to look at someone who loses consciousness while standing to see how quickly they hit the deck. It takes a lot of work just to stand up, and walking is not something we’re inherently stable at. The way that Julian had arranged for the user’s legs to move turned out to mimic that familiar instability of walking, and thus tapped into one of our subconscious natural processes. Because we do not carry memories of how we move our legs when we walk, run, or climb stairs, how we move on a ROVR quickly becomes, as in real life, pushed to non-conscious action, leaving the conscious mind free to experience the content."
Into the lab
When we arrive at the Oxford Brookes Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, Brookes reveals itself to be both larger than Oxford University and more practically biased. I spot some impressive-looking Formula 1 cars on our way to the Stress and Materials testing lab, which is full of contraptions (such as the Testometric Micro 500) straight from Wallace and Gromit.
King struck up a partnership with the university back in the days when he was working as a consultant for Siemens and needed to do some testing at cryogenic temperatures. That collaboration continued throughout his time at YASA (a spinoff from Oxford University that makes high-powered electric motors). Since embarking on this latest venture, he has made full use of the lab’s facilities to put the Wizdish and its components through their paces.
Dr. James Broughton—who heads the Joining Technology Research Centre (JTRC)—drops in just as King is setting up the device for our demo. This is a working prototype, consisting of a concave platform encased by a supporting frame. It has been actively tested by more than 30,000 people since 2012. It’s made of a specially formulated polymer that interacts with ceramic discs fitted to the user’s shoes. As you move your legs backward and forward, it detects motion through the sound made by your sliding feet on the platform surface; slow or small movements generate low sound and translate into slow walking in the virtual environment, and vice-versa.
The ROVR is agnostic to both headgear and footwear. It will couple with any HMD (head-mounted display) as it interacts directly with the content/software rather than the hardware itself. As for shoes, King tells me how they’ve so far adapted everything from Pradas to infantry boots by adding the ceramic disks to their soles, but for the first demo I just slip on a pair of sandal-like overshoes on top of my trainers.
Stepping onto the Wizdish feels very much like going onto an ice-skating rink. I spend the next few minutes playing VR Pac-Man on the Samsung Gear VR, frantically running away from and chasing giant versions of Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. We then move on to Dreadhalls, where I’m told I was the only person who ever managed to get killed during the demo.
The more I used the dish, the less I relied on the frame around me for support, and King tells me this tallies with the experience of other users. Because sight and hearing tend to be our dominant senses, as long as those are stable within the virtual world our other senses become automated. Users who touch the supporting bars on the device don’t actually remember doing so afterward, and with practice most are able to eventually walk around without touching the bars at all.
Since VR focuses so intensively on those two dominant senses—sight and hearing—it’s actually a lot more intense than the real world, where our sensory inputs are constantly diluted by other factors, interferences, and distractions. This means that the longer you remain in a virtual environment, the more likely you are to experience simulator sickness. In that light, it’s no surprise I still felt some SS symptoms after about 20 minutes spent playing various games. This is precisely one of the reasons why most VR experiences tend to be so short, says Timoni West, Lead Designer at Unity’s research arm, Unity Labs.
“Once we have lighter, wireless technology, people will be able to have longer experiences, but in the end there are very few things in this world that are worth 100 percent of your time and attention,” she says. “There’s no way to check your phone in VR, it’s very hard to find your drink if you’ve misplaced it; It demands most of your attention, and there is nothing else out there that does that, except maybe a newborn child… So until we see more of an incorporated VR world that allows us to multitask a bit more in the way we’re used to with all our other digital devices, these will, for practical reasons, be shorter experiences, and that’s OK.”
Another factor that will enable us to have longer and more comfortable VR experiences is a build-up of tolerance through continued exposure. Learned—sometimes unconscious—mechanisms allow the user to better handle VR, with the brain learning to reinterpret visual anomalies that previously induced discomfort: “Adaptation is the single most effective solution to the problem of SS,” says King. “Most individuals adapt within a few sessions, some require considerable exposure to adapt, and 3-5 percent never adapt.”
Philip Rosedale, CEO and Founder of VR platform High Fidelity, says he found that most people do seem to experience SS less as they continue to use VR headsets. He also adds that many of these issues appear to be addressable by design.
“Motion sickness and, in particular, immersive environment sickness, has definitely become less of a problem in the year and a half since I’ve been working full time in VR,” says West. “One of the reasons for this is that best practices have been percolating through the community, and if you’re working with different kinds of locomotion you learn pretty fast what kinds of things are going to make you sick. The other is that computers are getting a lot faster. If you have one of the rigs with the high-end graphics card, simulator sickness seems to go down increasingly. Also, anecdotally, both in my team and teams I talked to outside Unity... you seem to build up a tolerance over time.”
Stability, thy name may not be software
VR hardware manufacturers such as Oculus tend to downplay the role of hardware in causing simulator sickness, perhaps understandably since they had a lot more sickness-inducing titles at launch than Steam did. Their extensive best practices for developers document details the most common triggers for the condition and ways to work around it. Similarly, Google is implementing a “Motion intensity” rating—to be set by developers—as a way for users to identify content they are most comfortable with.
Yet, although a lot of SS issues do come down to design and personal tolerance thresholds, we should not simply ignore motion sickness caused by the hardware itself, according to Professor Karthik Ramani from Purdue University’s C Design Lab. “Hardware and software should be developed together to reduce the sickness effects of VR. For example, using input devices such as physical controllers should be avoided in favor of more intuitive and natural interactions,” he says.
This is what his team is currently working on, developing a spatial user interface calledDeepHand that figures out the exact placement of your hands and fingers and uses deep learning to replicate those movements in virtual reality. Ramani explains that DeepHand was developed for surgical applications, yet the technology will likely benefit most virtual applications in the future, where it has the potential to significantly reduce motion sickness issues.
“It will help enormously when you can hold your hand up and the virtual hand appears, or you can look down at your feet and your feet are there, because that gives you a sense of presence,” agrees King.
Another novel approach to displaying expansive worlds within a limited space was developed by Dr. Takuji Narumi at the University of Tokyo in conjunction with Unity Researcher Yohei Yanase. Unlimited Corridor uses visuo-haptic interaction to trick the brain into thinking a VR space is bigger than it is. It gives the illusion of unlimited virtual travel in a straight line where it in fact modifies spatial perception by using redirected walking to steer the user a few degrees to the left or to the right so that they’re walking around circular walls. The goal is for people to move in an infinite direction—in any direction they choose—but in such a way that you only need a 10x10m space in which to do this.
Although this is not an overarching solution, users testing the Unlimited Corridor reported feeling VR sickness much less often. This style of merging the virtual and physical environments is already being successfully employed in places such as Hyper Reality theme park The VOID, and it could well be one of the ways used to extend the comfort of longer VR sessions in the future.
If the widely predicted Virtual Reality boom is to happen over the next few years, the industry does need to proactively address the issue of simulator sickness. If, like Charles King says, nearly two-thirds of users are susceptible to it, that’s a lot of people that will be put off of long-term VR use.
Inventions such as ROVR’s Wizdish, DeepHand, and Unlimited Corridor are likely to help, especially as they become more widely available. Yet, my experiences hint that there really isn’t one silver bullet for the SS problem. Designers, hardware manufacturers, and researchers all need to work together to address the many factors that contribute toward it, even as people become more conditioned to them.
So perhaps sometime in the not-too-distant future I might just be able to put on my headset and enjoy longer, immersive experiences without feeling any dizziness or nausea at all. It just may require hardware—be it a treadmill, some type of hand tracker, a fascmile for an endless hallway, or something else entirely—beyond those expensive headsets.
Alice Bonasio is a Technology Journalist, Author, and Consultant. In addition to contributing to Ars, she runs her own Tech Trends blog and regularly freelances for Quartz, Fast Company, The Next Web, Wired, and others. She has a particular interest in Virtual/Mixed reality and is currently writing VRgins, a book about sex and relationships in the virtual age. Find her on Twitter: @alicebonasio.