MINNEAPOLIS — At the Mall of America’s arena-sized Smaaash amusement arcade, people wait in line to slip on headsets that resemble blacked-out ski goggles and spend a couple of minutes feeling transported. They experience the sensations of flying a jet in combat, rescuing a kitten about to fall from a skyscraper or looping in circles on a roller coaster.
Not far away, the mall’s Best Buy carries a range of consumer-level virtual reality equipment. Salespeople explain how VR works, how it feels and how you might make it a part of your home entertainment collection.
For years VR has been hyped as the next revolution in computing technology. Facebook, Google, Samsung, and other technology giants are investing heavily in its future. But there’s one big obstacle still in the way: It makes large portions of the population — especially women and children — sick.
If VR is ever going to reach its much ballyhooed potential, Minnesota likely will play a major role. Two research projects, one at the University of Minnesota and the other at the Mayo Clinic, are focused on combating VR-induced nausea.
Without such a breakthrough, it’s unlikely that masses of people are going to hand over their hard-earned money for VR — be it $5 for a quick spin on an arcade game or hundreds of dollars for a home version.
“Why would anyone pay $600 for something that makes you toss your cookies?” asked Thomas Stoffregen, a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Kinesiology who studies how people become spatially disoriented and physically ill by experiencing simulated motion in virtual reality (sometimes called simulator sickness).
Consumers who expect the manufacturers to find a fix are going to have a long wait, he said.
“The companies that are making these are not facing that problem at all. When you buy one of these devices it comes with an instruction sheet, and down at the bottom of it there’s a legal disclaimer that says, ‘You may get sick playing this game.’
“That’s their approach to it,” he said. “They’re not making design changes based on it, they’re just making legal liability changes.”
Other potential solutions are materializing, however. Mayo Clinic researchers have developed a method using electrodes at the forehead, ears and neck to trick a user’s inner ear into perceiving motion synchronized with movements in the visual field.
It’s currently being used to help military pilots avoid nausea and has been licensed to the Los Angeles-based entertainment technology firm vMocion. While there haven’t been any approaches from the tech companies, Samsung created a similar electrical stimulation application of its own.
AN AGE-OLD PROBLEM
Motion sickness linked to physical movement has been a fact of life for centuries. But recent years have seen a dramatic increase in physical unease caused by interactive visual technologies. It’s caused by the perceptual disconnect as our eyes process vivid images of movement that are out of sync with what our bodies feel.
It’s an issue the Smaaash arcade deals with directly. In front of each VR simulator are large signs detailing possible side effects and prohibiting use of the device by people with vertigo, heart trouble, high blood pressure, back, neck or bone injury, recent surgery or illness, motion sickness or pregnancy.
Some simulators even have safety gear. “Vertigo,” which replicates a tightrope-style walk across a towering building’s narrow construction beams, creates an artificial visual experience challenging users to physically stabilize their body. The arcade requires customers to be buckled into a tethered safety harness to prevent tumbling from the virtual precipice to the literal floor.
“When (not if) you ‘fall,’ wait for game operator to help you regain balance and remove harness,” reads the advisory. ”At any point if you feel nauseous or uneasy, please ask operator to stop the ride.”
Widespread public exposure to virtual reality equipment is a recent development, but the technology has been under consideration long enough to drive extensive academic research. Since 1990, Stoffregen has explored the effects of VR motion sickness on hundreds of volunteers ranging in age from 10 to 75, although most were U of M students in their 20s. His recent research has covered cheap, midrange and high-end consumer devices, including the costly Oculus Rift, which runs off external computers, Microsoft’s less-expensive Xbox and the Apple iPad.
He’s found that the risk of negative bodily reactions varies across hardware and across games. Typically, 30 to 60 percent of the volunteers felt VR sickness within 30 minutes or less. As with unstable physical motion in the real world, women are far more susceptible to VR motion sickness than are men. For each man who reported feeling ill, three or four women did.
Some subjects felt sick immediately. Others began to feel sick hours later. While not part of his research, Stoffregen also noted anecdotal problems of eyestrain and headaches associated with VR.
Given that youngsters are more prone to vomiting from motion sickness than are adults, some VR manufacturers recommend that their units be used only by ages 13 and older. But there is no age gap in feeling the distress.
EVEN PROS ARE VULNERABLE
Buddy Scroggins, a veteran pilot for Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines, has flown through sustained turbulence and bumpy touchdowns for three decades. And never, he said, has he felt the kind of disoriented nausea caused by VR.
The Samsung Galaxy smartphone he bought six months ago came with a plastic headset to hold its screen horizontally, two inches from his eyes. Using the phone’s VR mode, he saw two aligned images on the screen. His visual cortex merged the side-by-side videos into stereoscopic 3-D. The device tracked his head movements as he turned his gaze across the visual ecosystems, studying new fields of view. As his brain interpreted it, he had entered a new environment.
“It was kind of far out,” Scroggins said. “I played several videos and two were memorable. One was filmed from inside the cockpit of a fighter aircraft doing loops and rolls and stuff. The other was a work of science fiction with the viewer riding in vehicle through a subterranean world. As it moves forward, you can turn around and look behind you or look to the side and up and down in this really strange universe, which was cool, what an interesting way to tell a story.”
Then he quickly learned something that was “not included in the instruction sheet.” His vestibular system, the complex sensory system in the inner ear that provides balance and spatial orientation, was out of sync with the visual perception of motion created by the VR imagery. The inconsistent messages created queasy mismatches between what he saw and what he felt.
He felt sick “instantly. I thought, ‘Whoa, whoa, this doesn’t feel good.’ ” Plus, “you need to be sitting down on a swivel chair.” As he tried to look behind from a fixed seat, he stood up to turn. “That was dangerous because you’re not really looking at your room so you can easily lose your balance and fall over or trip on something.”
He hasn’t returned to the device. “I thought this is really unpleasant and I’m not getting anything entertaining enough to make it worthwhile.”
Technology evolves endlessly, and improved VR gear eventually might cure the ailment it has created. The products on the market today could turn out to be only VR at the prototype stage of development.
But so far, design changes haven’t been much help. Stoffregen, who has done a study of the Oculus, found that while “the company has made many modifications” since its original design, “most of them make people sick.” Within 15 minutes, 56 percent of his volunteers felt nausea. Among women, it was nearly 80 percent.
Stoffregen is worried that if researchers can’t solve these problems, lawyers might have to. Tech visionaries predict that VR will move beyond social media and entertainment applications into immersive workplace functions. If so, Stoffregen warns that it will need to use significantly improved design and programming to avoid employment discrimination lawsuits.
If VR sickness affected only voluntary gamers, it would be a trivial matter, he said, but making it an employment issue shouldn’t be tolerated or ignored. Since women are more susceptible than men to VR’s balance-disrupting effects, Stoffregen believes using VR in business would represent sex discrimination.
“I certainly hope that’s going to have legal ramifications,” he said. “If you’re disadvantaging 50 percent of the population, you’d like to think there are some consequences.”