A new study on VR motion sickness concludes that certain brain activity detectable by EEG strongly correlates with VR motion sickness. This finding suggests that it’s possible to quantitatively measure and potentially prevent VR motion sickness.

While virtual reality opens the door to incredible possibilities, what we can actually do with VR today is at least somewhat limited by comfort considerations. While developers have steadily invented new techniques to keep VR content comfortable, scientists continue to work to understand the nature of motion sickness itself.

A new study published by researchers at Germany’s University of Jena in the peer-reviewed journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, intentionally induced VR motion sickness in participants while measuring brain activity.

14 subjects were hooked up to an EEG cap and donned a PSVR headset. In the headset the participants were exposed to increasing levels of artificial movement to induce VR motion sickness over the course of 45 minutes. In addition to recording brain activity via EEG, the subjects also subjectively rated their motion sickness symptoms throughout the experiment.

The researchers found a common pattern in the change in brain activity that closely corresponded with the subject’s own perception of motion sickness.

Specifically, the researchers write, “relative to a baseline EEG (in VR) the power spectrum for [brain] frequencies below 10Hz is increased in all brain regions. The increase in frequency power was correlated positively to the level of motion sickness. Subjects with the highest [perception of motion sickness] had the highest power gain in the theta, delta, and alpha frequencies.”

Researchers Matthias Nürnberger, Carsten Klingner, Otto W. Witte, and Stefan Brodoehl offer the following conclusion:

We have demonstrated that VR-induced motion sickness is associated with distinct changes in brain function and connectivity. Here, we proposed the mismatch of visual information in the absence of adequate vestibular stimulus as a major cause according to the model of predictive coding. […] Differentiation which changes in brain activity is due to the sensory conflict or caused by motion sickness should be investigated in further studies. Given the increasing importance of VR, a profound understanding of the constraints imposed by [VR motion sickness] will be increasingly important. Measures to counteract the occurrence of MS or assist in detecting it at an early stage will undoubtedly improve the progress with this promising technology.

The findings offer further evidence that motion sickness can be objectively detected through non-invasive hardware like scalp EEG, which could be used to guide future research into VR motion sickness and VR comfort techniques.

For one, such EEG measurements could be used to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of VR comfort techniques.

Presently developers of VR content employ a variety of well-known VR comfort techniques like snap-turning and teleportation to reduce the odds of VR motion sickness. But not all VR comfort techniques may be equally effective compared either to one another or when compared across individuals. Establishing a quantitative measurement of motion sickness via EEG could help improve VR comfort techniques or even discover new ones by providing clearer feedback while making testing more objective.

Such measurements could also inform comfort ratings as presented to end-users, to help those sensitive to VR motion sickness find appropriate content.

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Further, EEG detection of motion sickness could potentially be used on a real-time basis to predict and prevent motion sickness.

EEG brain sensing technology is becoming increasingly accessible and has already been integrated into commercial VR hardware. In the future, headsets equipped with EEG could allow developers to detect a user’s level of motion sickness in real-time, allowing for content adjustments or for VR comfort techniques to kick in automatically to keep users comfortable while they play or work in VR.

Thanks to Rony Abovitz for the tip!

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • I was starting to get sick play Phantom Covert Ops the other day, so anything that mitigates motion sickness would be welcome. For me, it’s always the turning that seems to cause it. Thankfully, most games now offer snap turning, although that doesn’t quite make sense in Phantom Covert Ops and therefore doesn’t really stop me feeling queasy.

    • benz145

      That’s a shame. I found that snap turning on Phantom Covert Ops made it perfectly comfortable for me. All the more reason why this research is interesting—a way to potentially quantitatively compare VR comfort techniques between people!

  • kontis

    A big red flag for this research is the fact they used PSVR and a closed gaming console with all its limitations and inflexibility for any research (!) when plenty of PC HMDs are available…

    Unless they had some specific some valid reason (like funding from Sony and access to their resources and full API) this seem to be an absolutely absurd and amateur thing to do.

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    • benz145

      From what I can tell, the use of HMD doesn’t change the findings. The question was not ‘does VR cause motion sickness?’, it was ‘when we purposefully induce motion sickness can we detect it through EEG?’

  • VR5

    This is indeed great for objective research on what causes motion sickness and to quantify both the extent of it and the ratio of people affected.

  • This is nice for assessing the techniques, but unluckily can’t solve the problem. It’s an interesting thing, though

  • wheeler

    This seems pretty important and I wouldn’t be surprised if certain companies are already doing this. I’ve read that VR hardware companies use similar setups to test VR hardware because the signals for discomfort (e.g. caused by distortion or other display/optical artifacts) often show up on a subconscious level well before one becomes consciously aware of the resulting discomfort, making it otherwise difficult to test the effects of changes to hardware.

    • benz145

      I’ve yet to hear of anyone doing this in practice but please mention if you’re aware of someone doing so!

      • wheeler

        I know I’ve read about it a few times but the only source that actually comes to mind is Bernard Kress’s “Optical Architectures for Augmented-, Virtual- and Mixed-Reality Headsets” (2020)

        Comfort, especially visual, is a subjective concept. Its impact is therefore difficult to measure or even estimate on a user pool. Recently, the use of EEG (on temple) and EOG (on nose bridge) sensors with dry electrodes on a headset have helped estimate the level of discomfort before a user might feel it is a nuisance.

        Unfortunately he did not cite anything for this–he simply made the claim in the introduction. I have to imagine this is something that gives companies a significant competitive advantage and thus they wouldn’t be too open about its application. With all of Valve’s work on BCIs and certain statements Yates has made (“swimmy HMDs cause nausea at an almost subconscious level, you don’t need to perceive it for it to make your experience using the HMD unpleasant”), I wouldn’t be surprised if they were using it.

  • Raphael

    I’m not personally interested in the anti-motion sickness of this technology. What interests me is the massive increase in realism that comes with GVS when applied to flight and racing sims. I will be making my own prototype soon.