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Monday, July 17, 2017, 11:49
The future of VR? US researchers may hold the answer
By Tribune News Service
Monday, July 17, 2017, 11:49 By Tribune News Service

Virtual reality has been hyped for years as the next revolution in computing technology. (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota - At the Mall of US' arenasized 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. 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.

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.

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.

"Why would anyone pay US$600 for something that makes you toss your cookies?" asks 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.

Consumers who expect the manufacturers to find a fix are going to have a long wait, he says.

"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 says. "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.

The Smaaash arcade deals with the motion-sickness issue 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.

The arcade requires customers to be buckled into a tethered safety harness to prevent tumbling from the virtual precipice to the literal floor.

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.

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.

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.

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 significantly improved design and programming will be necessary to avoid employment discrimination lawsuits.

If VR sickness affected only voluntary gamers, it would be a trivial matter, he says, but making it an employment issue shouldn't be ignored.

Since women are more susceptible than men to VR's balance-disrupting effects, Stoffregen believes using VR in business would represent sex discrimination.

"If you're disadvantaging 50 percent of the population, you'd like to think there are some consequences."

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