Headset making you sick? Here's an unlikely cure for VR-induced nausea

Does motion sickness lurk behind the high return rates for headsets like Apple's Vison Pro? One experiment suggests a simple and cost-effective solution.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
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It may sound like something out of a surrealist's handbook or a propaganda campaign by Enya fans – play joyful or calming music along with your VR experience to eliminate motion sickness.

Yet, a recent study conducted by the University of Edinburgh in alliance with the Inria Centre at the University of Rennes in France indicates that this practice could be the most powerful antidote yet to enjoying a VR experience sans the accompanying collection of debilitating effects that VR headset users complain of.

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This is no incidental malady. A deluge of VR users are now regularly reporting migraines, nausea, and anxiety -- called cybersickness when clubbed together -- after just a week-long immersion in the metaverse. 

Experts say that this happens because users tend to focus on objects that seem to be placed in the far distance but are in reality just a few centimeters away, something known as vergence-accommodation conflict.

That may be a mouthful to pronounce but the phenomenon's effects were severe enough for a noticeable number of returns of Apple's Vision Pro in the first few weeks following its debut.

Motion sickness, or nausea -- one of the allergic responses to VR -- is also linked to a fundamental disconnect between the inner ear and the eyes of a user. The eyes see motion taking place but the ears don't feel the sensation of it happening, thereby producing profound disorientation that leads to this adverse symptom. 

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There were 10 million VR headsets sold globally last year but these unwelcome sensations are proving to be a major impediment to the industry's growth.

Moreover, a wide array of industries -- from education and manufacturing to health -- that are banking on VR to propel them to new heights are increasingly imperiled by this widespread problem.

Music to their ears

Consequently, everyone in this ecosystem will be delighted to hear that a solution, even if it appears to be unusual and bordering on quixotic, exists.

Researchers from Scotland and France hit upon the idea of accompanying virtual roller coaster rides with music to see if it could reduce the nausea-inducing effects that VR brings with it.

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The first task was to determine what that music should be. In a prior online experiment, they subjected a group of participants to a variety of tracks that spanned the categories of "joyful" and "calming."

Of course, one woman's Beatles is another man's Bach -- at least in terms of what musical notes are effective in soothing the soul.

In this case, however, the track chosen by those participants as "joyful" was the instrumental version of Good Times by Chic. Similarly, the best "calming" track chosen by the same participants was Mellow Sky by Ray Amir. 

In the main experiment, the researchers selected 39 men and women between ages 22 and 36. The researchers first tested for memory skills, reading speed, and reaction times before the participants were let loose in the equivalent of a virtual Six Flags theme park.

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All participants went on three VR rollercoaster rides, each aimed at inducing cybersickness. Two of the three rides had either joyful or calming music playing while the third ride had no music at all. The order of the rides was randomly selected. Riders were evaluated across all relevant metrics after each ride.

The results were indisputable -- and startling. The researchers found that either calming or joyful music significantly lowered the intensity of nausea-related symptoms. 

However, it was the joyful music track -- Chic's Good Times -- that succeeded in reducing overall the intensity of cybersickness (while potentially proving to the world why disco will never die).

Cybersickness can be gauged by verbal working memory test scores, pupil sizes, reaction times, and reading speed -- all of which were noticeably reduced when Good Times was not accompanying the ride.

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One unusual gender-related finding: Men tended to get less cybersick, but only because a larger number of them had more gaming experience. Women and men who spent equivalent amounts of time playing video games had, by and large, the same intensity of cybersickness.

In the absence of any technological breakthrough to alleviate the debilitating effects of prolonged VR use, experimentation with music that produces joy may turn out to be the cost-effective, stop-gap solution that the industry has been waiting for.

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