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Microsoft researcher stops VR motion sickness by stuffing a headset full of LED lights

Ever since virtual reality headsets started landing in users’ homes and on our test bench, we’ve been dealing with some of the issues that come with new technology. The biggest by far has been the motion sickness caused by a disassociation between moving on screen, and sitting in a stationary chair. That’s made worse by the limited field of view, which makes it feel like you’re viewing the virtual world through a pair of glasses. Fortunately, Microsoft may have come up with a novel solution for both, and all it takes is a few LEDs, according to a study from Microsoft researcher Robert Xiao and Carnegie Mellon PHd candidate Hrvoje Benko.

The special HMD add-on, known for now as SparseLightVR, works by extending your peripheral vision, and leverages a known fact about human eyes that VR researchers have been paying more attention to lately. Your eyes, in general, see images at much higher clarity and definition at the very center, with less exact focus nearing the edges of your peripheral vision. The researchers take advantage of that by strapping a grid of LEDs around the inside of the headset to “render” details outside of the main view. The LEDs are covered with a diffusion film that blurs them together, and lit in response to the content shown by the headset.

The first, and the intended goal of the researchers, was to effectively increase each HMD’s field of view. It worked, as users were asked to identify targets on a grid first with an artificially limited 50 degree field of view, then with a standard Oculus DK2, which has a 90 degree FOV, and finally with the SparseLightVR version of the DK2, which brings the total field of view up to 170 degrees. Users were much faster at turning to point at targets with SparseLightVR. But more surprising was what happened when they started messing with the light and pattern of the colored LEDs.

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After trying a handful of different alternate screen patterns on the peripheral display, the team found that 11 of 14 participants preferred what they called “peripheral countervection,” where patterns were displayed that run opposite to the movement caused by turning or walking with a controller. This sort of reverse movement helped reduce dizziness and motion sickness, even though the researchers believed it might do just the opposite.

Also of note is Microsoft’s apparent attempts at modding a GearVR into an augmented reality headset. It uses a similar principle as the Meta 2, with the screen above and a mirror below to reflect the picture in front of the wearer’s eyes. This version has also been equipped with SparseLightVR, and the effect adds 90 degrees to the headset’s effective field of view.

If we’re learning anything from these VR experiments, it’s that we know shockingly little about exactly how the eye works, and how it renders images and movement in the brain. If anything, the work these researchers are doing is leading us a more fundamental understanding of the mind. It’s also a big step forward for VR headsets, which have been limited by the technology required for high resolution displays and lightning fast tracking. Whether this particular project will ever show up in other VR headsets remains to be seen, but it’s certainly an interesting workaround.