When we come to define the overarching feeling of the early part of the 21st century, it may come down to one word: queasiness. Some of the most exciting advances in technology – virtual reality, wearable tech, superfast smartphones and 3D films and operating systems – may all be scuppered by a basic human weakness: motion sickness.
“If you walk into a room, you see the visual input that shows us we’re moving, and our vestibular system, the organs of balance, tell us we’re moving, [as does] the perception from your muscles and bones,” says Dr Cyriel Diels , human factors specialist at the Centre for Mobility and Transport at Coventry University. “Below deck on a ship, you are physically moving, but because you are moving with the boat, the visual field seems to be stationary. The two seem to conflict. Your body responds with motion sickness: vomiting, feeling dizzy.”
With digital motion sickness, he argues, “it’s in the opposite direction. You’re stationary but you are watching something that is moving. Again, you have this conflict.” Depending on susceptibility and what we are watching, up to 80% of the population can be affected. “It’s a natural response to an unnatural environment.”
It is an issue that makers of virtual reality headsets, such as Sony, HTC and Oculus VR , have had to confront; developments such as higher resolution images and reducing the lag between the movement of your head and what you see on screen are said to reduce or eliminate motion sickness.
“Combating it is quite difficult,” says Diels. More motion means more motion sickness, but a gentle film or game “goes against some of the aims of virtual reality, where you want it to be an engaging, moving environment”.
Taking pills designed to combat travel sickness can help, as some gamers attest , “but really you don’t want people to start taking drugs so they’re able to be immersed in a virtual environment”. You can train yourself out of motion sickness, he says, if you “start slowly, reduce the time you’re exposed to it, and have resting time between”. But that won’t help everyone.
Will we just have to accept that vomiting and feeling nauseous are going to be a part of life, the “occupational disease of the 21st century” , as one headline put it? Or are we reaching our limits? It will be no fun sitting in our driverless cars (they are said to be more likely to induce queasiness partly because we are not in control of the car’s movements) wearing our virtual reality headsets, if we have to be accompanied by the least glamorous of travel accessories: the sickbag.
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