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Columbia researchers develop way to combat VR sickness

By dynamically adjusting a VR user's field of view, the researchers say they've developed a method to reduce motion sickness without sacrificing a sense of presence.

The demand for virtual reality headsets is expected to hit the tens of millions in just a few short years, but issues like motion sickness could discourage some consumers from embracing the technology. Now, researchers from Columbia Engineering say they've developed a method to combat that problem.

Professor Steven K. Feiner and Ajoy Fernandes MS'16 conducted a study in which they dynamically -- but subtly -- changed a VR user's field of view (FOV) in response to visually perceived motion. The technique gets at the heart of motion sickness, which is caused when the visual motion cues a person sees conflict with the physical motion cues they receive from their inner ears' vestibular system.

Decreasing a person's FOV can help reduce nausea in these scenarios, but it can also decrease the critical sense of "presence" in VR that's needed to make the experience feel real. Consequently, the researchers developed software to ever-so-subtly adjust the FOV on a VR headset, depending on how much of a conflict there is between a user's visual and physical motion cues. When there's a big gap, it restricts the FOV by partially obscuring each eye's view with a vertical soft-edged cutout.

After conducting a multi-day study with 30 participants, the researchers say they managed to significantly reduce the motion sickness that the participants felt using a VR headset, without decreasing their sense of presence.

"Virtual reality has the potential to profoundly change how we interact with people, machines, and information," Feiner said in a statement. "It is critical that the experience be both comfortable and compelling, and we think we've found a way."

The research team says their software can be applied to VR headsets including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard. They have filed a provisional patent with Columbia Technology Ventures.

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