Our Oculus Rift is lonely. Though readily available for anyone on staff to use, a surprising number of our coworkers are less than eager to use it. Why? Motion sickness. Complaints about the headset have ranged from mild discomfort to intense rip-the-headset-off bouts of sudden nausea.
The problem isn’t hard to pinpoint. There’s a disconnect between what you see, and what your body feels. This is the cause of motion sickness in many situations, and there’s a definite correlation between how susceptible a person is to “normal” nausea, and how severely it impacts them in VR.
But what if there’s a way to fix the problem? That’s exactly what Reliefband Technologies, maker of the Reliefband, says it has. The company’s wrist-mounted device can allegedly shock users into a more comfortable experience. Does it work, or is it wishful thinking?
The pivot towards marketing Reliefband as an aid for VR motion sickness is a marketing tactic, not a reflection of all-new technology. The band was first cleared for use by the FDA in 1999, when it was sold by a company called Woodside Biomedical. Since then it has undergone revisions, but the basic concept is the same.
Reliefband uses a technique called “neuromodulation,” which involves stimulating the nervous system to regulate sickness. The band applies tiny electrical pulses that allegedly “modulate the neural pathways between the brain and the stomach, via the vagus nerve.” It builds on the study of acupuncture, specifically the stimulation of Pericardium 6, a pressure point located on the wrist. The popular Sea-Band stimulates the same point, but it does not apply an electric pulse, and instead claims to work merely through pressure.
That will reassure some readers – and cause others to scoff. The band’s clinical trials do little to settle the matter. While some trials found the Reliefband (or Relief Band, as it’s usually called in studies) to be effective treating nausea during post-surgery recovery, and some cases of morning sickness, other studies failed to uncover a statistically significant effect on nausea caused by chemotherapy or motion sickness.
And though the device has been examined by the FDA, it’s only FDA-cleared, not FDA-approved. That means the device is “substantially equivalent to another legally marketed device,” but the FDA hasn’t tested the Reliefband specifically.
In short, the facts are murky. The band has a “weird science” vibe that’s amplified ten-fold the moment you put the device on.
Small, round, and lightweight, the band is utilitarian in design and function. The face is a power button surrounded by five LEDs that indicate the strength of the shocks you’re receiving. On the opposite side is a pair of contacts that administer its moderated electrocution. There’s no wireless connectivity, no smartphone app, not even a rechargeable internal battery (it uses a watch battery instead).
Reliefband is based on the study of acupuncture, which may assure some readers, and make others scoff.
This simplicity is sure to disappoint gadget geeks, and it feels barebones given the band’s typical $90 price tag. That’s more than entry-level fitness trackers, and not far south of mid-range trackers with a heartrate sensor, like the $120 Fitbit Charge HR.
The lack of excessive functionality makes the Reliefband simple to use. You can turn it on, adjust its strength, or turn it off – and that’s it. Applying the device correctly is a bit complicated, as the user must find the P6 point, apply a dot of conductive gel, and then snuggly secure the band precisely over it, but the steps become second nature after a few tries.
As mentioned, the Reliefband produces “tiny electrical pulses.” Put plainly, the band shocks you. Each increase in power produces more current; the ideal level is the lowest which produces a “gentle pulsing or tingling in the palm and/or middle finger.”
Gentle undersells the feeling. For most, it was like the tingle you’d feel if your hand was “falling asleep” because you’d rested at an odd angle. One tester saw a more dramatic effect, as the pulses caused a temporary twitch in his middle finger that he could not control – amusing, but also a bit unsettling, and not something you’d want to have happen while playing a VR game.
Everyone who used the Reliefband found the sensation uncomfortable, and some testers expressed concern about the long-term effects. There’s no reason to think the band would cause harm, but the fact users were worried says a lot about how discomforting the shocks can be.
But does it work?
Of course, some twitching and discomfort might be acceptable if the band works. A minor electrical prodding isn’t so bad next to the nausea, headaches, and vertigo a serious case of motion sickness can cause. So, did the band work?
Eight staffers tested the band. Some had previous VR experience, and some did not. Three were given a placebo band, rather than the real thing, and not told about the electrical shocks (the absence of which would, otherwise, make the placebo obvious). Two of the three placebo testers felt nothing out of the norm, while one remarked he thought the band “might be working,” but wasn’t sure.
Those given the real thing had mixed feelings. One tester thought nothing had changed, remarking “I don’t really notice a difference from before.” Two testers thought it may have an impact, but weren’t sure, with one commenting “It’s not night and day,” and later adding that “some of the worst moments are just as bad.” But the remaining two testers thought the Reliefband was a boon, saying they “felt a lot better,” though VR could “still be a little disorienting” in the most unforgiving games, like Dreadhalls.
Excluding the placebo group, that’s one tester who felt no difference, two who thought they felt some improvement, and two who felt definite improvement.
Obviously, we’d prefer the Reliefband to be magically effective, or an obvious hoax. That would make a conclusion easy to reach – but the device was not so accommodating. These results, like the clinical trials, make it hard to say if the band as an effect and, if it does, if it’s working in the way its maker describes.
At least one thing is clear; even in its best case, the band isn’t a complete solution. Extremely disorienting games will cause discomfort, band or not, even if you have an iron stomach.
The real shock may be the price
Buying the Reliefband is a gamble. It may help with your VR motion sickness, or it may not, and whether it seems to work will be impacted by the intensity of the game you’re playing. Our own mixed results, combined with the mixed results of past studies on the technology, make it impossible to say the band is a cure for VR-induced motion sickness. The electrical shocks, meanwhile, are guaranteed to cause discomfort.
A band that might work could be sensible if it’s inexpensive. Sea-Band, a popular item that claims to work through similar means, but applies pressure instead of a shock, sells for ten dollars or less. Shelling out less than a big bottle of Advil seems tolerable, even if the effects are uncertain.
The Reliefband will set you back $90. That’s a lot of Dramamine. Or the price of a decent gaming keyboard. Or the cost of several games for your VR headset of choice. While our tests show there’s a chance the band will help with your VR sickness, we don’t think the Reliefband is a safe bet.
- Simple to use
- Some testers felt VR sickness improved
- Based on shaky science
- Some testers reported little to no effect
- Electrical pulses can be uncomfortable
- Expensive, given its uncertain results
- VR in a pair of glasses? New research just made it possible
- Apple mixed-reality headset: Everything we know about Apple’s VR headset
- This weird touchscreen keyboard shows Apple how it’s done
- This smart desk’s built-in OLED screen looks like science fiction
- The most common Microsoft Teams problems, and how to fix them