In the world of business, VR is changing the game for things like surgical training and frontline training at scale. “But,” you might hear, “I tried it once, and it made me queasy.”
It’s true that VR experiences have long been associated with motion sickness, even as the quality and technology of VR headsets has improved dramatically. And there are other concerns about VR that crop up in conversation from time to time. Let’s unpack them here.
VR motion sickness is real — sort of
When a human being’s brain receives mixed signals about self-movement within an immersive digital environment, nausea is a typical result. By its very nature, VR relies upon altering human perception, bringing to life an environment and interactions that aren’t actually real. So, while the body is not in motion if it thinks it is, the brain might cue up nausea and dizziness — what we think of as motion sickness but is actually more accurately coined cybersickness.
Five years ago, a report by Inside Science revealed that 40 to 70% of users experience cybersickness after 15 minutes in a headset — and with some experiences, that rate was as high as 100%. The “sensory conflict” that causes cybersickness can bring other symptoms as well: headaches, eyestrain, physical discomfort, and even drowsiness.
But in the world of VR, things change rather quickly. What was the status quo five years ago is now out of date. The VR experience has come a long, long way or two specific reasons:
- Advances in headsets
- Advances in content production
- Advancing best practices
Here’s the status of each.
Headsets are no longer incredibly bulky
Ask any passerby to conjure up a vision of a VR user, and they’ll undoubtedly describe someone wearing an extremely enormous, unwieldy gadget over their head and eyes. The original VR headsets were not comfortable, that’s for sure.
When cinematographer Morton Heilig introduced the “telesphere mask” in the 1960s as the first head-mounted display designed around stereoscopic 3D images, the path to VR took a huge leap forward — but with a big, bulky headset that did not hint at future portability or scalability.
At the time, the in-headset experience did not include motion tracking, either. That came in 1961 in the form of a headset called Headsight, designed for the military. Over six decades later, and we have come a very long way with VR headsets. In fact, at this point, only 27% of VR industry experts consider bulky hardware and technical glitches as an obstacle to the mass adoption of VR. And that number is rapidly falling as VR headsets become more sophisticated, sleeker, and far less apt to cause motion sickness.
VR content matters deeply to the experience
It’s not just the headset quality that matters to the user experience. The content inside the VR headset is a huge factor. Better-designed VR experiences take advantage of precise default frame rates so there is no lag time in the experience. This creates a sharper, more realistic picture and avoids the shaking or delay of images on the “screen.”
This is important because a lag in the image can be a huge factor in cybersickness, triggering the sensory conflict that causes it in the first place. Mastery of the design principles of VR makes a huge difference when creating experiences that people will be comfortable in.
At Strivr, for instance, our experience designers practice a few tenets when creating Immersive Learning modules:
- We limit the camera movement within a 360° experience.
- Whenever possible, we maintain a consistent camera height throughout and across scenes.
- We open scenes with a central point of focus.
- When there is going to be a transition within the experience, we prime the user for that movement or change with voiceover prompts and smooth visual effects such as fades.
We’re also aware of other factors that impact the user’s sensory perception, designing for headsets with a fast refresh rate and designing for the natural human field of view of 210° horizontally.
- For more on how Strivr mitigates the risk of cybersickness, read the ebook Best Practices for Motion Sickness Mitigation.
The user’s role in their own experience
There are, as well, some best practices learners can follow to get the most out of VR with the least risk of nausea or dizziness.
- Short stints within a headset are a good idea.
- Starting off from a sitting position sometimes makes a big difference, but ultimately, it’s best if the learner takes the position they’re emulating in the headset.
- Coming into a VR experience hydrated and with an empty stomach is not a bad idea.
But remember that first-time users are typically more likely to feel discomfort when trying a VR experience. As they train more — over small periods of time — they usually adjust so they can truly reap the rewards of Immersive Learning.
Ensuring that VR experiences are safe and comfortable
VR learning is powerful because it imparts situational awareness, enabling the learner to feel as though they are truly immersed in an environment or scenario. That learning only works if they can suspect their disbelief and stay grounded in the experience.
VR training designed to teach employees operational skills, soft skills, and safety practices backfires if the user is distracted by motion sickness. Their learning depends upon being able to focus and stay within an immersive scene.
For more on the future of headsets and XR in particular, read Meta Quest 3 and Beyond: The Future of XR.