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The Cure for VR Sickness? A Virtual Nose


Fake nose, real benefits (Photo: David Whittinghill/Purdue University)

Concerned that VR gaming will make you queasy or lightheaded? Researchers at Purdue University may have sniffed out the solution.

David Whittinghill, an assistant professor in Purdue’s Department of Computer Graphics Technology, says that “simulator sickness” could be nipped in the bud by simply sticking a giant fake nose on the screen.

Yep, virtual Groucho glasses provide a fixed visual reference, which your brain can latch on to to prevent you from experiencing vertigo or motion sickness. It’s the same reason why you’re less likely to experience sickening sensations in a flight simulator, since the game’s cockpit gives you a similar reference point.

"The problem is your perceptual system does not like it when the motion of your body and your visual system are out of sync," Whittinghill said during a presentation at the Game Developer’s Conference in early March. "So if you see motion in your field of view, you expect to be moving, and if you have motion in your eyes without motion in your vestibular system [a liquid-filled part of your inner ear that helps you balance], you get sick."

The idea for sticking a virtual nose on the screen came from one of Whittinghill’s undergraduate students. And while it may have sounded odd at first, it worked.

"It was a stroke of genius," said Whittinghill, who teaches video game design. "You are constantly seeing your own nose. You tune it out, but it’s still there, perhaps giving you a frame of reference to help ground you."

The 41 test subjects spent time with a number of virtual reality simulations, ranging from exploring a house in Tuscany to riding a roller coaster. Most didn’t even notice the nose onscreen, says Whittinghill.

The efficacy of the virtual nose depends on the intensity of the simulation. People who tried the nose using the Tuscany simulation played an average of 94.2 seconds longer without feeling sick. Those who rode the virtual roller coaster lasted only an extra 2.2 seconds.

As to why, exactly, sticking a nose in the middle of the screen works … well, that’s still a mystery. But researchers are working on it.

"Our suspicion is that you have this stable object that your body is accustomed to tuning out, but it’s still there and your sensory system knows it," Whittinghill says. "Our long-term goal is to create a fully predictive model of simulator sickness that will allow us to predict, given a specific set of perceptual and individual inputs, what level of simulator sickness one can expect."

Follow Chris Morris on Twitter.