In the 1950s, the Navy introduced a simulator that taught pilots to fly helicopters from the comfort of virtual cockpits. They could take off, navigate bumpy air, and land without ever leaving the ground. It was a breakthrough that allowed an increasing number of pilots to train without the risk of crashing. But the sim wasn’t all that comfortable, and a significant number of pilots felt sick as hell while using it.
It wasn’t motion sickness per se, though the symptoms were comparable: dizziness, nausea, sweating, disorientation. Researchers of the day dubbed this physiological phenomenon “simulator sickness,” an early ancestor of the flu-like symptoms some feel after strapping on virtual reality headsets today.
Eliminating simulator sickness is a major interest of the burgeoning VR industry, but so far there hasn’t been a clear answer. Home remedies include drinking alcohol, while companies like Oculus Rift are exploring better positional tracking and improved display resolution. But researchers at Purdue University believe they’ve found a way to reduce the negative physical effects of virtual reality by using something that’s right in front of your face.
“We’ve discovered putting a virtual nose in the scene seems to have a stabilizing effect,” says David Whittinghill, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s Department of Computer Graphics Technology. That’s right, Whittinghill says placing a schnoz in the lower center of a headset’s screen has been shown to reduce the effects of simulator sickness by 13.5 percent.
Simulator sickness is still being studied, but researchers often point to sensory conflict as a primary cause. This theory states that a dissonance between what your eyes see on screen and the kind of motion your body feels can lead to disorientation and feelings of nausea. Say you’re riding a virtual roller coaster. As you creep up the coaster’s first big hill, your eyes will register an upward incline, but your vestibular system—the tubes of liquid in your ears that help gauge your position in the world—remains unchanged. “Our bodies don’t like that,” says Whittinghill.
Whittinghill and his team of students (Bradley Ziegler, James Moore, and Tristan Case) say anecdotal evidence shows a fixed reference point in a frame, like car dashboards and cockpits, tends to reduce feelings of simulator sickness. This got them thinking about the nose as a natural reference point and how it’s conspicuously absent from gogglelike virtual reality headsets.
In the small study, the team had 41 participants use various VR applications (one simulation of walking around a Tuscan villa, another of riding a roller coaster). Half played the games with the virtual nose, the other half played without. Whittinghill found participants with the nose were able to play the Tuscan villa game for 94.2 seconds longer than those playing without, while time played on the roller coaster game increased by 2.2 seconds.
“That’s not enough,” says Whittinghill. But it is a promising start, particularly because the participants playing with the virtual nose didn’t even notice it was there. “It’s a big honking nose,” he says. “It never occurred to us that they wouldn’t perceive it, but they were almost universally baffled about what we were even talking about.” Whittinghill says this is likely a result of “change blindness,” a perceptual phenomenon that allows our perceptual system to ignore objects that we see over and over again. Whittinghill’s theory is that the nose’s proximity to our eyes leads our brains to filter out its presence. “It’s likely to be hitting those same sensory neurons,” he explains. “I’m just guessing the neurons are saying no, this isn’t a real object, I’m going to subtract this from my perception.”
Regardless of whether that explanation is right, it bodes well for game designers who might be leery of sticking a nose in the center of an assiduously crafted world. At the same time, Whittinghill says the findings raise more questions than they answer. Would the results be better if the nose matched the ethnicity of the user? What happens if you change the position or size? Does it have to be a nose at all? If nothing else, the study points to the interesting design challenges involved in developing the new medium.
Eventually, Whittinghill wants to compile enough data to make accurate predictions about how sick a game might make any given player. “I can see people going to a website to answer a few questions about themselves to get some idea of their susceptibility,” he says, adding that it would require information about weight, age, and vision. Think of it as a virtual reality addition to sit alongside the pre-existing content ratings system for video games or a more personalized version of the Samsung Gear’s “comfort rating.” Someday next to “Kids,” “Mature,” and “Adult Only,” we might see something like: Nausea Rating: 7/10. Or: Your Nose Must Be This Big to Ride.
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