Why does virtual reality make us sick? Undergraduate investigates

Back to News

Strap on the Oculus Rift, a new virtual reality headset, and the world's limits dissolve. Leap across tall buildings ... plunge down foaming waterfalls ... spin out on treacherous off-road trails! Unbound by gravity, safety concerns, and, well, reality, Rift users reach a level of immersive pleasure that is mind-bending, intoxicating and — nauseating.

As exciting as it is, immersive 3-D is just too much for most people. Hardly anyone can handle what are called "full-field simulations" without feeling woozy. That's a problem for developers, not only at Oculus VR (makers of Oculus Rift), but in fields like medicine and military readiness, where 3-D simulation could potentially serve as a powerful learning tool.

The Oculus Rift headset. The Oculus Rift headset.

Determining who feels sickest, and why, is the focus of University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Taylor Hanley's year-long research project, funded by her 2013 Hilldale Award for Undergraduate Research. Hanley, who plans to graduate in May with a double major in communication arts and psychology, wanted a senior project that would allow her to explore an intersection between her two fields.

"I am extremely interested in how films affect people," she says. "And 3-D is definitely a part of that now; we're going in that direction. So how will people's perceptions and experiences be influenced by 3-D technology?"

Assistant Professor of Psychology Shawn Green urged Hanley to apply for the Hilldale Award to explore a question of central interest to anyone studying the future of film, video games, and 3-D learning: What exactly is making people feel motion sick?

Green's Learning and Transfer lab, along with her co-adviser Bas Rokers' 3-D Vision Lab, offered the perfect setting for Hanley to pilot and launch her experiment.

Using the OR, along with other 3-D tools like stereo glasses, Hanley measures levels of sickness against people's visual acuity. Hanley and mentor Green hope to discover a relationship between these two variables — which could be big news for developers looking to improve their systems.

Scientists have long known that a mismatch in "cues" between a person's visual system and their acceleration system causes motion sickness (think about getting seasick on a ship, where your body feels movement but your eyes don't agree). What Hanley is looking for are signs that the problem with 3-D resides solely in the visual system.

“I try to be patient and respectful of everyone’s limits,” says Taylor Hanley, shown here working with first-year student Adele Mckiernan.“I try to be patient and respectful of everyone’s limits,” says Taylor Hanley, shown here working with first-year student Adele Mckiernan.

"In 3-D, everything is in focus no matter what plane it's on," explains Hanley. "But in real life, things further away are not in focus. And the better your visual capabilities, the more you pick up on these discrepancies and are irritated by them."

The experiment is noteworthy, says Green, because even though developers have been interested in simulator sickness since the 1970s, there have been only a handful of papers published on the topic, and no definitive links between visual acuity and nausea have been established.

"This is a classic case of the science lagging behind the technology," says Green. "We are testing something that's been guessed at for a really long time, but there is a paucity of evidence that cue mismatch within the visual system is the causal element. Taylor's experiment is a clean test of the hypothesis."

Hanley developed her hypothesis and spent the fall semester piloting her tests, writing the questionnaires and refining the tasks. She is now running the experiment and collecting data, using 30 subjects she's recruited from the psychology subject research pool (made up of students looking to earn extra credit). In April, Hanley will present her results at the Hilldale Undergraduate Research Symposium.

“This is a classic case of the science lagging behind the technology. We are testing something that’s been guessed at for a really long time."
— Shawn Green, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The experience has taken Hanley far deeper into the scientific method. She also encountered a unique challenge: it is not pleasant to make people feel sick.

Most subjects don the Oculus Rift with an initial feeling of excitement, and love swooping through a parking garage in the cockpit of a remote-controlled toy helicopter. But almost everyone begins to feel nauseated after just a couple of minutes.

"I try to be patient and respectful of everyone's limits," Hanley says. "If you form connections with people, they are more likely to be cooperative and offer feedback you can use."

Working with Hanley (whose double major draws insights from both film and psychology) is rewarding for Green, who says the experiment allows for a unique melding of disciplines.

"I like working with undergraduate students because they are very open to things," he says. "Their ideas are not enclosed by the bounds of the domain."