Virtual reality raises real risk of motion sickness

Women more likely to feel nausea than men using gaming headset

woman wearing virtual reality headset

GAME ON  Playing a virtual reality game using a headset could give you motion sickness, particularly if you are a woman, a study using the Oculus Rift concluded.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With virtual reality finally hitting the consumer market this year, VR headsets are bound to make their way onto a lot of holiday shopping lists. But new research suggests these gifts could also give some of their recipients motion sickness — especially if they’re women.

In a test of people playing one virtual reality game using an Oculus Rift headset, more than half felt sick within 15 minutes, a team of scientists at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis reports online December 3 in Experimental Brain Research. Among women, nearly four out of five felt sick.

So-called VR sickness, also known as simulator sickness or cybersickness, has been recognized since the 1980s, when the U.S. military noticed that flight simulators were nauseating its pilots. In recent years, anecdotal reports began trickling in about the new generation of head-mounted virtual reality displays making people sick. Now, with VR making its way into people’s homes, there’s a steady stream of claims of VR sickness.

“It’s a high rate of people that you put in [VR headsets] that are going to experience some level of symptoms,” says Eric Muth, an experimental psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina with expertise in motion sickness. “It’s going to mute the ‘Wheee!’ factor.”

Oculus, which Facebook bought for $2 billion in 2014, released its Rift headset in March. The company declined to comment on the new research but says it has made progress in making the virtual reality experience comfortable for most people, and that developers are getting better at creating VR content. All approved games and apps get a comfort rating based on things like the type of movements involved, and Oculus recommends starting slow and taking breaks. But still some users report getting sick.

The new study confirms these reports. A team led by Thomas Stoffregen, a kinesiologist who has been studying motion sickness for decades, tested the susceptibility of two sets of 18 male and 18 female undergraduates during two different VR games using an Oculus Rift DK2 headset. The first game, which involved using head motions to roll a virtual marble through a maze, made 22 percent of the players feel sick within the 15 minutes they were asked to play.

Another 36 students played the horror game Affected, using a hand-held controller to navigate a creepy building. This time, 56 percent felt sick within 15 minutes. Fourteen of 18 women, nearly 78 percent, were affected, compared with just over 33 percent of men. Though the study tested only an Oculus Rift, other companies’ VR headsets based on similar technology may have similar issues.

This gender difference shows up in almost any situation that can cause motion sickness, like a moving car or a rocking boat. But Stoffregen says the disparity can’t be explained by the most widely accepted theory of motion sickness, which suggests that it’s caused by a mismatch between the motion your body is sensing and what your eyes are seeing, like when you read in a moving car. With VR, the theory goes, your eyes think you’re moving, but your body feels stationary, and this makes you feel sick.

Stoffregen thinks motion sickness is instead caused by things that disrupt your balance, like a boat pitching over a wave. And if you try to stabilize your body in the virtual world you see — say, by leaning into a virtual turn — instead of in the physical world you’re in, you can lose stability.

Men and women are typically different shapes and sizes, so they differ in the subtle, subconscious movements that keep their bodies balanced, known as postural sway, Stoffregen says. This difference makes women more susceptible to motion sickness, he claims. For the new study, he measured participants’ balancing motions before they played the games and found a measurable difference in sway between those who reported feeling sick and those who didn’t.

Because motion sickness is a complicated set of symptoms, self-reporting by participants may not be a reliable way to measure it, Muth argues. And, he says, “I would say the science isn’t there yet to draw that conclusion” about gender bias, adding he’d like to see the result replicated with a larger group. 

Even so, with VR potentially poised to jump from the gaming world into more mainstream aspects of society — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wants “a billion people on Facebook in virtual reality as soon as possible” — a gender disparity could become a real problem, especially if VR enters the workplace, Stoffregen says. “If it were only games, it wouldn’t matter, and nobody would care.”

About Betsy Mason

Betsy Mason is a freelance science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow reporting on how science impacts how we think about other animals. She is coauthor of All Over the Map.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society