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Cybersickness a growing concern, researchers say

Virtual reality is an obvious medium that could cause cybersickness, but you can get it from phones or TV too.

Virtual reality is an obvious medium that could cause cybersickness, but you can get it from phones or TV too. Photo: Bloomberg

If you are watching computer-generated mayhem in the latest action film or scrolling rapidly on your smartphone, you may start to feel a little off. A dull headache, maybe. Dizziness, or creeping nausea.

No, it is not something you ate.

A peculiar side effect of life in the 21st century is something called digital motion sickness, or cybersickness: Experts say many of us can grow woozy while viewing moving digital content, feeling as if we are on a boat in a churning sea.

“It’s a fundamental problem that’s been kind of been swept under the carpet in the tech industry,” said Cyriel Diels, a cognitive psychologist and human factors researcher at Coventry University’s Center for Mobility and Transport in England. “It’s a natural response to an unnatural environment.”


Digital motion sickness, also known among medical professionals as visually induced motion sickness, stems from a basic mismatch between sensory inputs, said Steven Rauch, medical director of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Balance and Vestibular Center and professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School.

“Your sense of balance is different than other senses, in that it has lots of inputs,” he said. “When those inputs don’t agree, that’s when you feel dizziness and nausea.”

In traditional motion sickness, the mismatch occurs because you feel movement in your muscles and joints as well as in the intricate coils of your inner ear, but you do not see it. That is why getting up on the deck of a ship and looking at the horizon helps you feel better.

But with digital motion sickness, it is the opposite. You see movement — like the turns and twists shown in a movie or video game car chase — that you do not feel. The result is the same: sensory conflict that can make you feel queasy.

It can happen to anyone, even if you are someone who is not prone to motion sickness in cars, boats or planes. Various studies indicate it can affect 50 to 80 per cent of people, depending on the fidelity of the digital content and how it is presented.

Studies show that women are more susceptible than men, as are those with a history of migraines or concussion. Often symptoms are subtle. Many people with digital motion sickness do not quite know what is causing their discomfort, typically chalking it up to stress, stomach upset, eye strain or vertigo.

None of this is news to the military, which has long known about the sickness that even seasoned pilots can feel in flight simulators. And the problem has become worse as simulators have improved with virtual reality and 3D imagery.

The same sort of mind-bending artistry is now pervading television and film, and even underlies the icons floating on your smartphone’s home screen. Quick cuts, rapid panning and first-person-view camera angles intensify the effect.

“The idea is to get audiences to feel like participants in the action rather than outside observers of the action,” said Jonathan Weinstein, a former film producer and now a professor at the Kanbar Institute for Film and Television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It makes viewers more connected to the story — or it makes them hurl, because in a film, there’s really no horizon to look at.”

Indeed, there is a website called MovieHurl.com that rates movies on how likely they are to make you feel sick. And mobile device and gamer forums are full of postings looking for advice on how to engage with the latest operating systems and interfaces without throwing up.

Apple had to add extra accessibility settings to its mobile operating system to allow users to tone down the visual stimuli. And executives at Oculus VR, makers of the much-anticipated virtual reality headset Oculus Rift (the company was purchased by Facebook last year for $US2 billion), have said digital motion sickness is one of their biggest hurdles.

“The more realistic something is, the more likely you are going to get sick,” said Thomas Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, who has done extensive research on digital motion sickness. “No one got sick playing Pac-Man.”

Balance specialists said the problem could often be improved with habituation — watching, say, a chaotically cut film or playing a virtual reality game in short spurts just until the onset of mild symptoms, then leaving it, recovering and repeating it at specified intervals.

“People usually respond well if we have them do it in a very controlled, conservative way,” said Lisa Heusel-Gillig, a physical therapist and neurological clinical specialist at the Emory Dizziness and Balance Center in Atlanta.

But some experts wonder whether it is a good idea to train your brain to ignore conflicting sensory stimuli, as it might inhibit your ability to react appropriately in the real world.

“There are certainly concerns, particularly when it comes to long-term exposure,” said Kay Stanney, a human factors researcher in Orlando, Florida, who consults with the military and businesses on the design and use of virtual reality and other immersive technologies.

Stanney said her team had tested more than 1000 subjects in virtual reality sessions and had seen that the magnitude of aftereffects can be strong and long lasting. When study subjects returned to the real world, they had trouble with visual focusing, tracking images and hand-eye coordination.

Stanney said her team also measured a fundamental shift in people’s postural stability.

The worry is that a teenager, after several hours of playing a virtual reality game, might get behind the wheel of a car and have balance and vision impairments similar to being drunk. Lengthy viewing of high-definition televisions or scrolling wildly on a phone might also somehow alter people’s sense of equilibrium, making them more likely to trip and fall.

“Long-term studies need to be done to understand the full impact,” Stanney said. “In the military, you can be grounded for up to 12 hours after a simulator session because they understand the aftereffects are real.”

The New York Times

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